Friday, September 17, 2021

Archive Review: The Black Keys’ El Camino (2011)

The Black Keys’ El Camino
The Black Keys found unexpected success with their 2010 breakthrough album Brothers, which earned the duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney three Grammy® Awards. While Brothers’ mix of psychedelic-tinged blues, rock, and soul music struck a chord with listeners, the album’s hit single, the groove-fattened “Tighten Up,” became ubiquitous, blasting from TV sets and radios across the fruited plains.

The Black Keys’ El Camino

The Black Keys have delivered a fast follow-up to Brothers in the form of El Camino, a solid collection that draws upon its predecessor’s timeless mix of styles with a pure-at-heart blast of retro-soul and rock ‘n’ roll. Unlike the band’s previous collaboration with producer Danger Mouse, 2008’s Attack & Release, which experimented in lofty sonic atmospherics, there are no loose musical threads here. Instead, El Camino hits fast-and-hard with inspiration that spans the decades, the Black Keys turbo-charging their trademark garage-blues sound with elements of soul, electric funk, and punch-drunk throwback rock ‘n’ roll.

El Camino cranks from the jump with lead single “Lonely Boy,” which sports a riff-happy melodic hook every bit as large and in charge as that on “Tighten Up.” Auerbach’s slightly-echoed vocals are overwhelmed by the song’s dangerously infectious sing-along chorus and Carney’s propulsive drumbeats. Infusing a bedrock of rock ‘n’ soul with a maddeningly effective recurring riff and plenty of engaging “whoa whoa whoa,” the song will stick in your brain long after you’ve heard it, like some funky brain chigger.

You’ll find no creative drop-off from the radio-friendly peaks of “Lonely Boy,” El Camino rolling through its eleven songs in a shockingly efficient 38-minutes, leaving the listener gasping for breath and wanting another taste. The martial rhythms of “Dead and Gone” belie the song’s melodic R&B heartbeat, while “Little Black Submarines” is a Zeppelin-styled folk-rock ballad with melancholy vocals and elegant, atmospheric fretwork. “Money Maker” is a raucous blues-rock stomp with muscular rhythms while “Nova Baby” revisits the retro-soul vibe of the opening track with a gorgeously melody and sticky chorus.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

The Black Keys have come a long way from their three-chord garage-blues origins as an ersatz Rust Belt White Stripes doppelganger, finding their own voice in a high-octane blend of styles that is as classic as it is contemporary. (Nonesuch Records, released October 12, 2011)

Review originally published by Blues Revue magazine…

Buy the CD from The Black Keys’ El Camino


Archive Review: The Rolling Stones' No Security (1998)

The Rolling Stones’ No Security
Throughout their lengthy and illustrious career, the Rolling Stones have always been known primarily as a live band. Strangely enough, however, they’ve never really released a great live album. From historic shows like Leeds, Oakland ‘69 or New Orleans ‘78, their best onstage moments have always been caught on tape (and subsequently put on vinyl and/or CD) by bootleggers. Even Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out, arguably the band’s best live effort, has been eclipsed now that the entire show, taken from the original acetates, has recently been bootlegged by Japan’s Stones-crazy Vinyl Gang. Unfortunately, the release of No Security, the Stones’ umpteenth live disc, will do nothing to add to the Stones’ live legacy.

The Rolling Stones’ No Security

Not that No Security is entirely bad, mind you. It doesn’t reinvent the band as the semi-live, semi-acoustic Stripped did, but it’s probably the band’s best live effort since Ya-Ya’s, which isn’t really saying much. Some of the performances here are golden – Mick’s duet with Dave Matthews on “Memory Motel,” the great Taj Mahal guesting on a cover of his “Corinna,” and Joshua Redman’s sax flourishes complimenting Mick’s vocals on “Waiting On A Friend” come to mind. “Thief In the Night enjoys a particularly soulful rendition.

Other cuts on No Security are luckluster enough to be sleep-inducing, however – Jagger cakewalks through a morose rendering of “Gimme Shelter,” a song that once held so much primal power and raw energy that people lived (and died) by it. The band just sounds tired on cuts like “Sister Morphine” and “The Last Time,” and the couple of songs included here from Bridges To Babylon are so unremarkable as to be practically anonymous. Part of the problem is that No Security was compiled from songs from five different shows, thereby losing whatever cohesion and continuity the performances had in the first place. Another part of the problem is that the Stones have always been a visual band, one best enjoyed while sitting right in front of them…an intangible that doesn’t translate well to CD. 

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Mick, Keith, tell you what, boys – next time out (and there will be a next time, you can bet on it!) just record a bunch of shows, pick the best one and release it in its entirety, flaws and all. Either that or dip into the vaults and release a legitimate version of one of those often bootlegged shows. Until then, we’ll make do with No Security, the latest not-so-great live album from the world’s greatest live band, the Rolling Stones. (Virgin Records, released November 2nd, 1998)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 1998

Buy the CD from Amazon: The Rolling Stones’ No Security

Also on That Devil Music:
The Rolling Stones’ Blue & Lonesome CD review

Friday, September 10, 2021

Archive Review: Black Sabbath's Reunion (1998)

Black Sabbath’s Reunion
Perhaps the greatest of the primal heavy metal bands that walked the earth during the early 1970s, Black Sabbath defied critical expectations and went on to become not only one of the most successful acts in rock music during that decade but also one of the most influential. From Guns ‘N’ Roses and Iron Maiden to White Zombie and Marilyn Manson, not a single one of them would have existed if not for Sabbath’s groundbreaking musical efforts. Although signature Sabbath vocalist Ozzy Osbourne would leave the band in 1980 to become a superstar in his own right, the band continued to carry on through the two decades to follow. Making both good records and bad, Sabbath trudged along under guitarist Tony Iommi’s guiding hand to become one of rock music’s most enduring legends.

Black Sabbath’s Reunion

Sabbath has now come full-circle as the original foursome of Ozzy, Iommi, drummer Bill Ward, and bassist Geezer Butler got together again last December for a couple of live performances. The result is captured on the 2-CD Reunion, a long overdue live set from one of rock’s monster live bands. Unlike their contemporaries, Kiss, another recently reunited rock legend created by the fans rather than the critics, Sabbath didn’t attempt to knock people out with a set of new songs. No, they decided to give their fans what they’ve always wanted – red-hot live versions of some of their greatest hits. They’re all here, too, from “Iron Man,” which is still chilling after all these years, to the eerie “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” and the crowd favorite “Paranoid.” Ozzy allows the audience to sing along on a wicked rendering of “War Pigs” while other Sabbath favorites also enjoy stellar performances, including “Fairies Wear Boots” and “Snowblind.”

As a result of the band’s impromptu reunion, Ozzy and Tony Iommi penned two new songs, which are tacked on as studio cuts at the end of Reunion. The first, “Psycho Man,” is a taut thriller with concertina wire-sharp guitars and ominously plodding rhythms while “Selling My Soul” offers a sordid tale of madness and confusion – sort of like a sequel to “Paranoid” – that is driven by Ozzy’s trademark wailing vocals. Perhaps a hint of things to come, these two songs showcase that Black Sabbath has forgotten more about “heavy music” than a lot of aspiring metalheads will ever know. A reunion tour is allegedly in the works, with a new studio album possibly not far behind. Regardless, Reunion captures the greatness that is Black Sabbath in concert, maybe not at their fighting prime, but not missing many punches, either. (Epic Records, released October 20th, 1998)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 1998

Also on That Devil Music:
Black Sabbath’s The Rules of Hell CD review
Black Sabbath’s The Dio Years CD review

Friday, September 3, 2021

Short Rounds: Marshall Crenshaw, Crack The Sky, Donna Frost, Mark Harrison & the Happy Tramps, Christone Kingfish Ingram, The Rubinoos & Jon Savage's 1972-1976 (September 2021)

he Wild, Exciting Sounds of Marshall Crenshaw
New album releases in 200 words or less…

Marshall CrenshawThe Wild, Exciting Sounds of Marshall Crenshaw (Sunset Blvd Records)

American major labels are scouring the archives for uncut gems to pump up their expensive “deluxe” anniversary reissues of best-selling back catalog titles. These sets are often luxury purchases for well-heeled boomers and they offer little in the way of value with their seemingly endless studio outtakes and they-shoulda-remained-demo-recordings. The legendary Marshall Crenshaw, on the other hand, delivers on the dollar, his archival release The Wild Exciting Sounds of Marshall Crenshaw a reasonably-priced two-disc set comprised of previously-unreleased live performances. What do you get for your double-sawbuck? Disc one offers 16 tracks with Crenshaw’s early band circa 1982-83 featuring delightful performances of some of his best-known songs like “Whenever You’re On My Mind,” “Rockin’ Around In NYC,” “Cynical Girl,” and “Someday Someway,” all of ‘em performed with energy and youthful enthusiasm. Disc two stirs in a couple of lovely solo acoustic numbers and a 1991 performance of “Walkin’ Around” with friends like Mitch Easter and Brad Jones. Crenshaw lovingly covers the Bottle Rockets’ sublime “Kit Kat Klock” before the disc closes with six songs performed with the Bottle Rockets themselves and recorded by Eric Ambel (The Del-Lords), the engaging performances sitting comfortably at the intersection of Beatlesque power-pop and Americana. Grade: A   BUY! 

Crack The Sky's Between The Cracks
Crack The SkyBetween the Cracks (Carry On Records)

Rust Belt rockers Crack The Sky have been dancing on the hard edge of progressive sounds for better than 45 years now and, with roughly two-dozen studio and live albums to their name (including this year’s wonderful Tribes), CTS has a rather sizeable back catalog of music. Between the Cracks is an odds ‘n’ sods collection of songs chosen by the band members, material they collectively consider to be “sleeper tracks that fell between the cracks.” It’s a heady collection, to be sure, with deep cuts dating back to the early ‘80s, but the bulk of the dozen songs here are from the new millennium (my guess is that they couldn’t license any of the 1970s-era Lifesong label tracks). What you hear is a mature, veteran band with significant musical chemistry as shown by songs like the mesmerizing “Zoom,” the ghostly Goth-prog of “We’re All Dead,” the Kraut-rockin’ “The Box,” and the stunning guitars and biting social-commentary of “Immigration.” Crack The Sky’s sound is equal parts guitar-rock and proggy ambition, performed with imagination and no little skill. Early CTS fans should check out Between the Cracks for a taste of what this talented band has been doing in recent years. Grade: B+   BUY!

Donna Frost's The Quarantine Sessions
Donna Frost The Quarantine Sessions (self-produced)

Like many of us, Nashville-based singer, songwriter, and guitarist Donna Frost spent much of 2020 locked in the house, trying to avoid the plague raging outside our doors. She did what a lot of restless musicians did – she wrote and recorded a bunch of songs, five of which are featured on Frost’s The Quarantine Sessions EP. With a gorgeous voice that straddles the line between folk and country, Frost looks for the positive with songs like “I’m Keeping the Faith” and “Love and Kindness,” her performances anchored by a gentle guitar strum and unadorned, emotionally-impactful vocals. With “Quarantine Blues” Frost displays a deft hand with Piedmont-styled blues guitar, her spry inspired-by-real-life lyrics cleverly documenting America circa 2020 while “When This Is All Over” is an uplifting look towards the future. The Quarantine Sessions closes out with “Welcome To Our New World,” a frank appraisal of our predicament that is musically jauntier than the lyrics. Overall, Frost faces the pandemic and quarantine with hope and humor with these five carefully-crafted and entertaining songs. Grade: A-   BUY DIRECT! 

Donna Frost's The Quarantine Sessions, Volume 2
Donna FrostThe Quarantine Sessions, Volume 2 (self-produced)

Sadly, the pandemic didn’t go away as quickly as a certain self-absorbed segment of our political leadership believed, and singer-songwriter Donna Frost experienced the loss of her mother to Covid. As such, the nine songs on Frost’s The Quarantine Sessions, Volume 2 are a shining example of faith in the presence of grief and tragedy. Frost’s wonderful vocals are accompanied only by her guitar, both instruments displaying a greater sense of urgency than previously with many of these songs. The positive lyrics of “Here and Now” and “I’m Gonna Take This Day” are nevertheless plagued by the same doubt and uncertainty that many of us are still experiencing, while the bluesy shades of “Bitter But Better” are entirely appropriate considering the song’s see-sawing emotions. Frost’s beautiful and touching “Mama’s Prayers” is a wonderful reminiscence of a loving, supportive relationship that deserves a place on country radio and, by closer “Press On,” the singer has regained her determination to face down adversity. The songs on The Quarantine Sessions, Volume 2 are more complex and pissed-off performed more aggressively than its predecessor, but Frost’s lyrics still display the hopefulness and optimism we’ll need to get through this three-ring circus we call life. Grade: A   BUY DIRECT!  

Mark Harrison & the Happy Tramps' Way Out!
Mark Harrison and the Happy TrampsWay Out! (Twister Records)

With Nashville rockers Sour Ops, Mark Harrison and brother Price weld Detroit sonic overkill with modern power-pop to create a fresh throwback sound. Way Out!, the debut from Mark and his band the Happy Tramps, veers away from the guitar-happy crash ‘n’ bang of Sour Ops in favor of a chill retro sound that’s heavy on 1960s-styled pop-rock-soul atmospherics. Opener “Believe It Or Not” melds Booker T-inspired pop-soul and a lush backing soundtrack to Harrison’s trembling, emotional vocals. It’s a heady musical moment, one of many on Way Out! Harrison’s vocals remind of Roy Orbison by way of Chris Isaacs, songs like “Where The Wild” and “Want You” displaying haunting beauty while tunes like “Mindbender” and “Shake It” roll down the tracks with a drunken bluesy swagger (“Shake It” displaying some of Harrison’s fiery git-licks). “Down The Line” and “Leaving Now” evince a sort of folkie singer-songwriter vibe with an emotional heartbeat and those ethereal vocals. Harrison is a pretty good lyricist in a Dylanesque manner, and it’s to his and the band’s credit that they stamp their trademark on the disparate styles described above and, much like Sour Ops, make it a sound uniquely their own. Highly recommended! Grade: A+   BUY DIRECT!

Christone Kingfish Ingram's 662
Christone “Kingfish” Ingram662 (Alligator Records)

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram turned more than a few heads with his stunning 2019 debut, Kingfish. By the time of that album’s release, the talented 20-year-old guitarist had already performed at the Obama White House and opened for legends like Buddy Guy and the Tedeschi Trucks Band. The ambition and beauty of Kingfish does nothing to prepare you for Ingram’s spectacular sophomore effort, 662 (named for his Clarksdale, Mississippi area code). Working with producer Tom Hambridge, Ingram has delivered a mature, multi-faceted work that shines like a jewel in the sunlight. The guitarist masterfully blends contemporary blues styles with blues-rock and throwback R&B for a sound that will have your stereo speakers jumping. The title track is a juke-joint rave-up with flamethrower guitar while the socially-conscious ‘70s-styled funk-soul sound of “Another Life Goes By” displays Ingram’s smoky, Curtis Mayfield-styled vocals. The “bonus” track “Rock & Roll” is just hauntingly beautiful, with languid vocals and elegant fretwork that sticks in your brain for days. Ingram has upped his game throughout 662, his vocal phrasing meeting the needs of each song and supported by his fluid, diverse, and electrifying guitar style. Alligator Records’ founder Bruce Iglauer discovered a rare talent in Christone Ingram. Grade: A+   BUY!

The Rubinoos' The CBS Tapes
The RubinoosThe CBS Tapes (Omnivore Recordings)

Power-pop pioneers the Rubinoos shock and awe with The CBS Tapes, a collection of demo recordings evincing an anarchic attitude and adorable pop-punk energy almost two decades before Green Day and the Offspring made their mark. Recorded at CBS Studios in San Francisco in 1976, prior to the band’s signing with Berserkley Records (home to Earth Quake, Greg Kihn, and Jonathan Richman), this eleven-track collection features the band’s original roster, including guitarists Jon Rubin and Tommy Dunbar, galloping through a 30-minute set that approximates their live show at the time. So, you get ripping original tunes like the bouncy, glam-rock “All Excited” and the young, loud, and snotty “I Want Her So Bad” delivered with the subtlety of a stick of dynamite alongside cover songs both serious (The Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand”) and not (The Archies’ “Sugar Sugar”). The band displays an unexpected instrumental deftness on their cover of the Meters’ classic “Cissy Strut” while their take on friend and labelmate Jonathan Richman’s “Government Center” is provided a sophisticated pop-rock arrangement. The CBS Tapes preserves the sound of happy music guys making a joyful noise. Reforming in 2010, the current touring band includes three original members. Bravo! Grade: B+   BUY!

Jon Savage’s 1972-1976: All Our Times Have Come
Various Artists – Jon Savage’s 1972-1976: All Our Times Have Come (Ace Records U.K.)

After releasing a handful of personally-curated compilation albums covering the essential years of the 1960s (one each from 1965 to 1968), British rock critic Jon Savage jumped to a multi-year period for 2019’s Rock Dreams On 45 (1969-1971) comp. This year’s model stretches a little further, All Our Times Have Come spanning 1972-1976 across two discs and 44 songs. This sort of collection can be scattershot, but Savage has excellent musical taste and an ear for primo-grade rock ‘n’ roll. Thus, you get the expected hit singles from folks like Alice Cooper, Roxy Music, John Lennon, Andy Pratt, Blue Öyster Cult, and Blondie as well as classic deep cuts from beloved rockers like the Byrds, Mott the Hoople, Free, Lou Reed, the Sweet, Patti Smith, and Big Star. Throw in cult rockers the Move (“Do Ya”), Flamin’ Groovies (“Slow Death”), Eno (“Third Uncle”), the Ramones (“Blitzkreig Bop”), and Grin (“End Unkind”) alongside lesser-known artists like Faust, Sparks, the Hammersmith Gorillas, the Count Bishops, and the Wackers and Savage has once again assembled an entertaining and electrifying period playlist. The diverse musical selection and a profusely-illustrated 28-page booklet with extensive liner notes raise the set miles above your average “hits” collection. Grade: A   BUY!  

# # #

Previously on That Devil

Short Rounds, June 2021: The Black Keys, the Bummers, Michael Nesmith, Greg “Stackhouse” Prevost, Quinn Sullivan, and the Vejtables

Short Rounds, April 2021: Peter Case, The Fortunate Few, David Olney & Anana Kaye, Sour Ops, Joe Strummer, and the Thieves

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

Archive Review: Alice Cooper's Billion Dollar Babies (1973/2001)

Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies
By 1973, Alice Cooper was one of the hottest bands in rock ‘n’ roll. Featuring the flamboyant on-stage antics of lead vocalist and band namesake Cooper and a sound that was a cross between metal-edged blues, hard rock and camped-up show tunes, the band struck gold with their fifth album, 1972’s School’s Out. By the time that they would enter the studio to record what would become their masterpiece – Billion Dollar Babies – the band was on the verge of breaking up. Suffering from tensions created by constant touring, the ever-growing complexity of their stage shows and problems created by the extreme overuse of alcohol, the band nonetheless put together ten songs that would become the keystone of the Alice Cooper legacy.

Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies

Remixed by producer Bob Ezrin and reissued by Warner Archives and archival experts Rhino Records, Billion Dollar Babies was originally released in 1973 to overall critical acclaim and great commercial success. It became the band’s best-selling album, it led to one of the largest-grossing and spectacular tours in rock history and it inspired a legion of hard rock, punk, and heavy metal bands to follow. Today, nearly 30 years after its release, it stands out as a landmark of rock music. Cuts like “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” “Hello Hooray,” and the vastly underrated and oft-overlooked “Generation Landslide” stand as rock icons. “Elected” is every bit as funny and relevant in the new millennium as it was in the Nixon era while lesser-known tracks such as “Raped and Freezin’” and the macabre “I Love the Dead” did their best to launch the Goth and death metal genres.

Released by Warner/Rhino in two versions, those who merely want a taste of one of rock’s most unique and influential bands can go for the single-disc reissue of Billion Dollar Babies. For long-time fans or the curious, the “deluxe edition” of Billion Dollar Babies includes a second disc of live tracks and outtakes that is well worth the few extra dollars to buy. Featuring eleven songs taken from two Texas shows in April 1973, it offers killer performances of “Elected,” “Hello Hooray,” “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” and “Billion Dollar Babies.” It also includes live versions of older Alice Cooper faves like “I’m Eighteen,” “My Stars,” and “I Love the Dead” as well as a handful of outtakes from the Billion Dollar Babies sessions.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Two years after the release of Billion Dollar Babies, Alice Cooper the band would break-up and Cooper the individual would start a lengthy and productive solo career that continues to plod along today. Along with his contemporary Ozzie Osbourne, Alice Cooper has been granted “rock godfather” status by today’s heavy metal kids. Through the years that followed, however, Cooper and his bandmates would never again make rock ‘n’ roll as primal, vital, and energetic as they would with these ten tracks. (Rhino Records, reissued June 6th, 2001)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2001
Buy the CD from Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies

Friday, August 27, 2021

Archive Review: Justin Townes Earle's The Good Life (2008)

Justin Townes Earle's The Good Life
When you’re the son of a bona fide Americana music legend, and named after one of greatest songwriters of the genre (Townes Van Zandt), expectations are high. With his full-length debut, The Good Life, Justin Townes Earle delivers everything expected of him in spades. Not content to merely mimic his dad’s work, the younger Earle takes his impressive songwriting skills in a number of diverse directions. Whereas his pappy’s music tends to draw more from both rock and folk worlds, the younger Earle instead goes in the other direction, pulling the best from the Tennessee and Texas hillbilly traditions.

Justin Townes Earle’s The Good Life

Growing up in a musical household, Earle had the opportunity to soak in all sorts of influences, and it shows in his work. An eerily-mature songwriter that is skilled beyond his years, Earle easily weaves together story-songs in his dad’s image, but with his own voice and a widely differing soundtrack. The title track from The Good Life is a delicious ‘60s-styled country throwback that sounds like a classic Faron Young tune, while the heartbreaking “Who Am I To Say” is reminiscent of namesake Van Zandt’s stark folk poetry.

Other songs on The Good Life showcase Earle’s mastery of a diverse range of country styles. “Lone Pine Hill” is a haunting Western dirge and “What Do You Do When You’re Lonesome” is a weepy Texas dancehall ballad. “South Georgia Sugar Babe” is a bluesy, Southern rock/R&B hybrid with gumbo-funk rhythms while “Lonesome And You,” with its mournful steel guitar and slow shuffle, is the sort of honky-tonk country that Ernest Tubb could crank out in his sleep. “Turn Out My Lights” is a delicate, finely-crafted folk ballad…and about as close as Justin gets to sounding like his famous father. 

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

The vocals on The Good Life are warm, certain and soulful throughout, and producer R.S. “Bobby” Field’s deft hand and extensive roots-music knowledge allowed him to bring out the best in Earle, perfectly capturing the artist’s eclectic sound. With boundless ambition and loads of talent, Earle easily ties together strains of roots-rock, folk-blues, Tex-Mex, Western Swing, and traditional country in the creation of an amazing, remarkable debut album. (Bloodshot Records, released February 1, 2008)

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

Buy the CD from Justin Townes Earle’s The Good Life

Archive Review: Michelle Malone’s Homegrown (1999)

Michelle Malone’s Homegrown
Atlanta’s Michelle Malone is proof that you can’t keep a real artist down. After an ill-promoted, though energetically rocking Lenny Kaye-produced major label debut in 1990, Malone has spent the rest of the decade wandering from one indie imprint to another. During this time, while fellow female folk rockers like Jewel, Meredith Brooks, or Sheryl Crow have experienced varying degrees of career success, Malone has remained an undiscovered gem.

Homegrown, Malone’s follow-up to 1997’s wonderful Beneath the Devil Moon, is unlikely to play beyond Malone’s faithful cult following, regardless of how good it is. No longer a diamond in the rough, years of playing and recording have polished Malone’s former barroom growl into a multi-faceted and quite enchanting singing voice. Malone can still rock out – witness the pop hooks on the album-opening “Avalon” or the riff-driven “Brand New Dream.” Malone has developed range and depth as a singer, though, illustrated by the country-sweet “Keeping Score” or the folkish tale “Cheap One Star Hotel.”

Michelle Malone’s Homegrown

As a songwriter, Malone has always been at her best with semi-autobiographical confessional lyrics, the kind of bread and butter that provides Tori Amos or Alannis Morrisette with multi-Platinum™ sales. Unlike these chart-topping “angry young women,” however, Malone’s material resounds with sincerity and realism. Her anger has been tempered somewhat by humility, a point best shown by Homegrown’s bittersweet title track. Looking back over the last decade, running in place while the rest of the world runs by, Malone laments “I’ve been sitting in this apartment waiting for my ship to sail/but the canvas started rotting through and there’s rust upon the sail.” Springsteen once asked listeners “is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” Malone sings “this is my home – where my dreams began to fade.” The physical place of “home” becomes a metaphor for an entire career. Nevertheless, the song shows a glimmer of hope, Malone accepting the way things are with a realization that she’ll carry on in spite of the cost.

Whether Malone would like another shot at the brass ring with a major label or would be content with a long-term home on a stable indie is beyond my knowledge. I do know that I’ve been listening to Malone since her major label debut almost a decade ago, and I’ve seen her continue to mature as an artist. Unlike many more successful folks, I’ve never heard a bad Michelle Malone album. It’s a strange coincidence, but Malone’s career parallels that of Kiya Heartwood. Both were signed by Arista at roughly the same time – Malone with her Drag the River band and Heartwood with Stealin’ Horses. Both released impressive, critically acclaimed debut albums, both are Southern storytellers and Arista had no idea what to do with either of them.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

While Heartwood has recorded sporadically since, most recently in a duo called Wishing Chair, Malone continues to crank out fine music for whatever label happens to like her at the moment. Michelle Malone is a true treasure, though, and living proof that sales aren’t the only measure of an artist. You owe it to yourself to discover her talents – I promise that the day will come when Malone will be recognized as the artist that she is. (Strange Bird Songs, released November 11, 1999)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 1999

Buy the CD from Michelle Malone’s Homegrown

Friday, August 20, 2021

Archive Review: The Bottle Rockets’ Brand New Year (1999)

The Bottle Rockets’ Brand New Year
Forever doomed, it seems, to working the cult-following fringes of the alt-country music scene, the Bottle Rockets return to the indie ranks with Brand New Year, a solid, if not spectacular set of songs. The band’s overwhelming appeal has always been in the songwriting skills of Brian Henneman and the shit-kicking country/rock hybrid that underlined the lyrics. 

With Brand New Year, though, Henneman hides behind a co-writer on seven cuts out of the fourteen, kicking in only three solo songs. Contrast that with the eight solo cuts he wrote for 24 Hours A Day, arguably the Bottle Rockets’ best effort, and you’ll see where Brand New Year falls off. When Henneman is collaborating with folks like ex-Georgia Satellite Dan Baird or producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, the results are lively, with the writers working well off each other. Other collaborative efforts sound more strained and lifeless.

That’s not to say that there isn’t some good music to be found on Brand New Year – several cuts here will produce smoke and flames from that five-CD changer of yours. The Baird collaboration, “Nancy Sinatra,” is as funny as it is naughty, “I’ve Been Dying” shows more attitude than any dozen punk songs you’d care to name while the anti-technology cut “Helpless” paints Henneman as a joyful luddite. The powerful “Gotta Get Up” is a minimalist anthem for every blue-collar Joe whose life revolves around the 40-hour week. With cranked up amps, tortured guitars and brilliantly simple lyrics, “Gotta Get Up” effectively portrays the working class grind.

However, the flat spots on Brand New Year, especially the inane “The Bar’s On Fire,” detract from the album’s musical high points. The result is something I never thought I’d hear from the Bottle Rockets – an uneven album. Even a mediocre Bottle Rockets’ album is better than almost any other band you’ll hear, though, and Brand New Year’s best cuts still stand head-and-shoulders above 90% of the dreck you’ll find out there. (Doolittle Records, released August 10, 1999)

Originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 1999

Buy the CD from The Bottle Rockets’ Brand New Year

Friday, August 13, 2021

Archive Review: Ani DiFranco & Utah Phillips’ Fellow Workers (1999)

Ani DiFranco & Utah Phillips’ Fellow Workers
Ani DiFranco has made a good living by defying expectations and laughing in the face of conventional wisdom. When the major labels ignored her unique brand of punk-folk, she started her own label – Righteous Babe Records – and made it a great success. When the big boys finally came sniffing around, sensing that a buck or two could be made off DiFranco’s seemingly unlimited talent, she turned her back to the multinationals – hell, she didn’t need them as bad as they needed the artistic credibility she could provide. And when DiFranco made the decision to add an artist to her label’s exclusive roster, she didn’t go looking for some hot indie band, but rather developed a project with folk singer and political activist Utah Phillips.

Ani DiFranco & Utah Phillips’ Fellow Workers

Fellow Workers, the second collaboration between DiFranco and Phillips, is a wonderfully subversive collection of both original and traditional stories and songs with a sharp political edge. Phillips, an old school Industrial Workers of the World union member or “wobblie,” relates tales of the extraordinary feats of average people who propelled worker’s rights forward through activism, strikes and their own sacrifices. The forty-hour week, the eight-hour day, annual vacations, worker safety and many other rights that we currently enjoy can all be directly tied to the defiance of union members and “fellow workers” during the early part of this century.
DiFranco and her crackerjack band create an ever-moving musical undercurrent beneath Phillip’s storytelling, mixing musical genres from acoustic folk to organic ambience in support of the grizzled Phillip’s friendly vocals. Touching upon some of the labor movement’s most beloved figures, such as Mary “Mother Jones” Harris, as well as rank-and-file folks like Tom Scribener, the saw-playing musician, Phillips bring these folk heroes to life with his energetic sharing of these important stories.

A thought-provoking and valuable collection, Fellow Workers shows that, contrary to what the corporate media might say, there’s still a little life left in the struggle yet. Progressive politics doesn’t have to consist of boring intellectualism or corrupt unionism but can be lively, joyous and accessible. The songs and stories on Fellow Workers are about hope and the desire for a better world that includes us all, regardless of race or creed or how much money one has in the bank. With this collaborative effort, DiFranco and Phillips keep this hope alive. (Righteous Babe Records, released May 18, 1999)

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Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 1999

Friday, August 6, 2021

Classic Rock Review: Warren Zevon's Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School (1980)

Warren Zevon's Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School
Facing the new decade, the legendary Warren Zevon had a tough act to follow…his third album, 1978’s Excitable Boy, had yielded a Top 30 hit in “Werewolves of London,” an enduring classic of ‘70s rock that has since appeared in numerous movies and been covered by bands like the Grateful Dead and the Flamin’ Groovies, among others. The chart success of the song (peaking at #21) fueled sales of the album, pushing it into the Top 10 (to #8) and almost-immediate Gold™ Record status for over half-a-million platters sold. Other songs from Excitable Boy – “Lawyers, Guns & Money,” “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” “Johnny Strikes Up the Band,” and the enthusiastic title track – established Zevon as an intelligent and erudite, if quirky songwriter and vocalist possessing a way with words and a taste for the macabre.

Warren Zevon’s Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School

Released in February 1980, Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School was an appropriate, if slightly less commercially-successful, follow-up to Excitable Boy. From the album title to the material contained herein, Zevon’s whipsmart lyrics and dark humor dominate over an all-star cast of musicians that included longtime collaborator Jorge Calderón; multi-instrumental talent David Lindley; guitarists Jackson Browne, Waddy Wachtel, and Joe Walsh; singer Linda Ronstadt; and members of the Eagles. The album features six original Zevon songs (plus two instrumental “interludes”) alongside a single cover song and co-writes with Calderón, T-Bone Burnett (who had toured with Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue), and another rising rock ‘n’ roll star, Bruce Springsteen.

At the time of its release, critics were rather lukewarm on Bad Luck Streak, with Robert Christgau giving the album a rare B- grade (most of Zevon’s albums rated As). Writing in Rolling Stone magazine, critic Jay Cocks was complimentary overall, but most reviewers were seemingly confused by Zevon’s oddball songs and poignant glimpses into his own humanity. The album has since found kindness in reappraisal, with All Music Guide’s Mark Deming writing in 2015, “the album’s rockers hit harder and cut deeper than any of his previous work,” concluding that “while Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School didn’t quite return Zevon to the top of his game, it made clear that the quality of Warren Zevon was no fluke, and is a stronger effort than Excitable Boy in nearly every respect.”

I have to agree with Deming…Bad Luck Streak is overall a strong creative effort, an album that builds upon the strengths of its predecessor while inching, albeit slowly, onto new creative ground. Co-produced by Zevon and Greg Ladanyi (who’d worked with Browne and Fleetwood Mac), the pair perfectly capture the talents of the assorted instrumentalists while still placing an emphasis on Zevon’s strong, evocative vocals and poetic lyrics. The album-opening title track is a bit of a bawdy throw-away (“dancing school” a longtime euphemism for a brothel), but the song’s fierce fretwork and introductory orchestral flourishes point towards Zevon’s symphonic ambitions. An inspired cover of Ernie K-Doe’s 1961 hit “A Certain Girl” skews closer to the Yardbirds’ 1964 version than the New Orleans R&B of the original, but Zevon’s call-and-response vocals, backed by a chaotic instrumental soundtrack, provided the singer with his second charting hit single.
Bad Luck Streak picks up steam with the muscular ode to mercenary soldiers, “Jungle Work,” which features strident vocals, iron-pumping percussion, and Joe Walsh’s jagged guitar licks. The grand ballad “Empty-Handed Heart” (featuring a verse sung by Ronstadt) was written for Zevon’s impending divorce and reveals a sliver of the singer’s inner turmoil. “Bed of Coals” and “Wild Age” are of a similar thread, the former a lovely piano-driven ballad and the latter a more mid-tempo tune with a melodic groove; both songs delve inward, lyrically, as Zevon attempts to face up to his shortcomings with self-reflection, the emotion supported by Lindley’s wiry yet nuanced fretwork.

Play It All Night Long

At the core of Bad Luck Streak are the three songs that anchor the album and save it, perhaps, from melancholy and maudlin sentiment. “Play It All Night Long” is a dark-hued caricature of life in the deep south that cleverly references Lynyrd Skynyrd while revealing the lie behind the glorification of the Southern lifestyle. With barbed lyrics that address poverty, racism, and substance abuse, Zevon delivers one of his most scathing vocal performances above the mournful sounds of Browne’s guitar and Lindley’s pedal steel. The Springsteen co-write, “Jeannie Needs A Shooter,” was released as the second single from the album, and it should have been a huge hit. Zevon’s lyrics are inscrutable, as usual, but the song’s tale of romance and betrayal, and Walsh’s imaginative lead guitar – bolstered by slight background orchestration and a strong melody – should have helped the song receive a modicum of chart success.

“Gorilla, You’re A Desperado” is too often considered the album’s novelty song, a pithy comedic throwaway that lightens the mood before the one-two punch of introspection that closes Bad Luck Streak. I view it differently, however, and have long considered the song a savage satire of the music biz specifically and the entertainment industry-dominated Southern California lifestyle in general. Yes, it’s a funny song with visual lyrics and an infectious melody and plenty of meta references but it also features a jaunty, cheeky Zevon vocal performance alongside Jackson Browne’s tasteful slide-guitar playing and a rich musical backdrop. It’s novel only in that the song is an unbridled expression of Zevon’s imagination, which makes it a worthy successor to “Werewolves of London.”

Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School would enjoy modest success, with the aforementioned “A Certain Girl” haunting the upper half of the Billboard “Hot 100” singles chart while the album itself notched a #20 placement on the albums chart, not too shabby a showing considering that Zevon was uniquely out-of-step with musical trends at the time. The stopgap live album Stand In the Fire was released in late 1980, followed by the eccentric collection The Envoy in 1982. In spite of his earlier commercial success, Asylum Records dumped Zevon after The Envoy failed to chart, and as the artist sunk into drug and alcohol abuse, he wouldn’t record again for five years and the critically-acclaimed 1987 album Sentimental Hygiene…but that’s a story for another time. (Asylum Records, 1980)

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Archive Review: Warren Zevon’s Life’ll Kill Ya (2000)

Warren Zevon’s Life’ll Kill Ya
Warren Zevon’s first studio effort in years finds him back in rare form. In recent interviews with the critically-acclaimed artist, Zevon has expressed a personal satori of sorts, the observation that rock ‘n’ roll seems to be made by a bunch of angry young men who really have few reasons for such venomous outpourings of angst and frustration. Middle age, claims Zevon, is where the real funk settles in, when body parts start to give out (illustrated perfectly on Life’ll Kill Ya by Zevon’s hilarious “My Shit’s Fucked Up”) and your own mortality becomes crystal clear. This is the theme that runs throughout Life’ll Kill Ya, and as an aging scribe a mere whistle stop away from full-blown middle age status, I can readily identify with Zevon’s message.

This is no youthful collection of songs, but rather the slightly cynical, mature and pragmatic observations of a talented artist who has trodden a few long and dark roads. Whether he’s delving into the bittersweet nature of love, as with “For My Next Trick I’ll Need A Volunteer,” or sharing the realization, on the title track, that none of us get out of this world alive, Zevon’s songs are poetic puzzles, their meanings often revealed piece by piece. His ode to Elvis, the darkly amusing “Porcelain Monkey,” is the best song written about the great American icon and the fleeting nature of fame while a cover of Steve Winwood’s treacly “Back In the High Life Again” revives the song with a slow, soulful rendering. Accompanied by sparse instrumentation that walks a fine line between rock and folk, the songs on Life’ll Kill Ya represent Zevon’s best performances in a decade. It’s an inspiring collection, a resounding roar from an old lion that isn’t ready to give up his place at the table among the young cubs quite yet. (Artemis Records, released January 25, 2000)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2000

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Friday, July 30, 2021

Archive Review: Poundhound’s Massive Grooves From the Electric Church... (1998)

Poundhound’s Massive Grooves From the Electric Church...
King’s X bassist Doug Pinnick steps out on his own with this self-produced solo effort under the “Poundhound” moniker. Pinnick’s musical influences are quite evident: Hendrix, George Clinton, Prince and, actually, King’s X, to name a few. Although Poundhound never really strays far from the style of music created by Pinnick’s full-time job, i.e. thundering rhythms, unexpected syncopation, nifty chord changes, and tasty six-string work, Pinnick nonetheless has forged a set of songs with a distinct identity of their own. I can’t see any King’s X fans being alienated by Massive Grooves, which reinforces King’s X’s credibility rather than diminishing it.

With Massive Grooves From the Electric Church of Psychofunkadelic Grungelism Rock Music (the album’s full and glorious title), Pinnick and his Poundhound mates explore the funkier sides of King’s X music (of which Pinnick is an integral part), creating, well, some “massive grooves.” The disc opens with a funky-cool space-jammin’ psychedelic rant reminiscent of Hendrix on Axis: Bold As Love. From there, the single word-titled songs explore a pleasant musical mix of P-Funkish grooves, metallic riffs and improvisational instrumentation. Although there’s not a bum track here, some songs work better than others do. Those that strike true – like the monstrous “Darker,” the effervescent spiritual booty-shaker “Jangle” or the ethereal “PsychoLove” – are fine songs, indeed.

Pinnick is a rare talent, a group player that contributes to making King’s X one of the most underrated outfits in rock ‘n’ roll today. As shown by Massive Grooves, he is also a visionary solo artist willing to explore the possibilities of the music and is quite a talented guitarist in his own right. Although he has made a career with his band, Pinnick’s Poundhound project shows that, for this artist, there’s also life alongside King’s X. (Metal Blade Records, released 1998)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 1998

Friday, July 23, 2021

Classic Rock Review: Gregg Allman’s Laid Back (1973)
The tragic death of his brother Duane in October 1971 had a profound effect on Gregg Allman, who would develop an often-times debilitating substance abuse problem in its wake. Although the Allman Brothers Band continued truckin’ after the loss of its founder, releasing the critically-acclaimed 1972 double-album Eat A Peach – which also included Duane’s last recordings – the album’s commercial success (peaking at #4 on the Billboard album chart and achieving Platinum™ sales levels) ensured that the ABB would attempt another bite of the apple. Frictions grew within the band, with singer, songwriter, and guitarist Dickie Betts often butting heads with band namesake Gregg over the band’s creative direction.

Gregg began thinking about exploring a solo career and, in late ’72, he began work on Laid Back, with friend and former bandmate Johnny Sandlin co-producing the album. Desiring to explore musical avenues apart from the ABB, Allman had Sandlin enlist a talented crop of musicians, including old friends like guitarists Scott Boyer and Tommy Talton (from the Southern rock band Cowboy) and keyboardists Chuck Leavell (a future ABB member) and Paul Hornsby as well as bandmates Jaimoe and Butch Trucks. The album’s eight songs featured four written by Allman, one Boyer composition, and a couple of choice cover songs that explored the possibilities of rock, blues, jazz, gospel, and R&B music (i.e. Americana).

The resulting mix of sounds on Laid Back found an audience not only among ABB fans but also with newcomers who appreciated Allman’s soulful vocals and the album’s “laid back” blend of instrumentation and melodic musical styles. The hit single was Allman’s “Midnight Rider,” probably as close to the ABB sound as the singer would get here, an eerie swamp-rock soundtrack resonating behind Allman’s haunted vocals. There are other solid moments here, though – the smoky late-night blues vibe of “Queen of Hearts,” which offers jazzy undercurrents; an inspired, up-tempo cover of the 1964 R&B hit “Don’t Mess Up A Good Thing”; and the gospel fervor of the traditional “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” – all of which drove the album to #13 on the charts, selling better than half a million copies. It also launched Allman’s solo career, separating him from his longtime band and ensuring a musical legacy of his own. (Capricorn Records, 1973)

Buy the CD from Amazon: Gregg Allman’s Laid Back

Archive Review: Shawn Holt & the Teardrops’ Daddy Told Me (2013)

Shawn Holt & the Teardrops’ Daddy Told Me
With his legendary father, Magic Slim, sadly passing away in February 2013, it was up to singer, songwriter, and guitarist Shawn Holt to pick up the torch and begin to make his own mark on the blues world. To call Daddy Told Me a debut album would be a bit too disingenuous – Holt toured with his father and the band for years, and his scrappy guitarwork can be heard on albums like Magic Slim’s Black Tornado – but it is a transitional recording nonetheless. 

Teaming with longtime Teardrops Chris Biedron on bass and drummer Brian “B.J.” Jones, Holt enlisted guitarist Levi William and family friend and Chicago blues guitar legend John Primer to put together Daddy Told Me. The results speak loudly for themselves, the album a wonderful collection of inspired versions of songs written or popularized by Magic Slim alongside Holt’s own well-written originals.

The title track draws upon Chicago blues tradition while still sounding contemporary, the band cranking out a deep, driving groove atop which Holt layers on his gruff, growling vocals on a tale of romantic turmoil as the guitars grind and howl. Holt’s “Hold You Again” follows a similar template, matching muscular guitar-driven blues with an unrelenting rhythm. By contrast, Magic Slim’s “Buddy Buddy Friend” displays a playful side to the band, with spry vocals and less bruising, more intricate fretwork. 

A cover of Bo Diddley’s “Before You Accuse Me” is an old-school delight, with John Primer’s swinging vocals and stinging guitar an undeniable pleasure while Holt’s “You Done Me Wrong” offers the perfect match of traditional and contemporary Chicago blues, whipsmart guitar and jaunty rhythms dragging the form into the 21st century. Bottom line: if you were a Magic Slim fan, you’re going to love Daddy Told Me! Grade: B+ (Blind Pig Records, released September 24th, 2013)

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Friday, July 16, 2021

Archive Review: Samantha Fish’s Black Wind Howlin’ (2013)

Samantha Fish’s Black Wind Howlin’
Guitarist Samantha Fish is a real up ‘n’ comer on the worldwide blues stage, a relative newcomer that nevertheless has a wealth of experience to her credit along with some globetrotting tours and a pair of albums with fellow distaff bluesers Cassie Taylor and Dani Wilde as “Girls With Guitars.” Fish released her Blues Music Award winning solo debut Runaway in 2011 and now, a couple years later, comes the all-important sophomore effort, Black Wind Howlin’

Working again with fellow Missouri native Mike Zito as producer, and featuring Zito’s Royal Southern Brotherhood bandmates Charlie Wooten (bass) and Yonrico Scott (drums) along with Zito (guitar), and harp player Johnny Sansone, Black Wind Howlin’ offers up ten electrifying performances, nine of them written or co-written by the talented Ms. Fish.

There’s so much that’s good about Black Wind Howlin’ that it’s hard to find a place to start the praise. “Miles To Go” is a hard-rockin’ blues tune that veers dangerously close to metal turf (think Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades”), the song’s unrelenting rhythm, restless “life on the road” lyrics, and scorched earth fretwork making for an invigorating listen. By contrast, “Kick Around” could make Fish a lot of money in song-starved Nashville, the tune a near-perfect mix of blues roots, roots-rock, and twangy guitar courtesy of Mr. Zito while “Go To Hell,” written with Zito, features a monster stomp ‘n’ stammer rhythm, big drumbeats, Fish’s malevolent guitar, and guest Paul Thorn’s delightfully gravel-throated vox.

Sansone shines on “Sucker Born,” his wildfire harp offering a nice counterpoint to Fish’s smoldering vocals and stunning guitarplay and a cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Who’s Been Talking” is delivered throwback style, with sultry vocals and swinging guitar and harmonica creating a dangerous vibe. Fish is a fine lyricist, imaginative and inventive while still learning the ropes, but it’s her amazing six-string skills that will enchant and hypnotize the listener. Don’t let her youth and gender fool you…Samantha Fish is genuinely bad to the bone, and only getting better! Grade: A (Ruf Records, released September 10, 2013)

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Friday, July 9, 2021

Classic Rock Review: Mick Abrahams’ A Musical Evening with Mick Abrahams (1971)

Mick Abrahams’ A Musical Evening with Mick Abrahams
Mick Abrahams was Jethro Tull’s original axeman, splitting after Tull’s 1968 debut LP This Was over arguments with bandleader Ian Anderson concerning the band’s musical direction. Abrahams would go on to form Blodwyn Pig, a British blues-rock band with a heavy jazz undercurrent not unlike what John Mayall was pursuing at the time, releasing two albums with that band before hitting the solo circuit.

A Musical Evening with Mick Abrahams (often shortened to just Mick Abrahams) was the guitarist’s solo debut, a mixed effort that showcases his six-string skills while also revealing the gaps in his songwriting abilities. The album-opening “Greyhound Bus” offers an infectiously-funky rhythm with scraps of Abrahams’ guitar shining through the dense mix alongside Bob Sargeant’s keyboard riffs, while “Awake” presages prog-rock with its dark ambience, subdued vocals, and instrumental prowess. The fleet-of-foot “Big Queen” is similarly priggish, but with blues threads woven throughout similar to what Mountain, Bloodrock, and even Beck, Bogart & Appice would be doing a year or two hence.  

However, the album goes off the tracks with the curious, weak-kneed “Winds of Change,” which is too soft-edged for blues-rock, its psychedelic pretensions a few years past the “sell by” date. Abrahams’ “Seasons” partially redeems the album’s excesses; a more straight-forward rocker with blues and prog tendencies, there is plenty of ominous keyboards, razor-sharp fretwork, and exotic instrumentation beneath the gang vocals to fill the song’s lengthy 15-minute run time. While not the most auspicious of debut albums, A Musical Evening with Mick Abrahams offers a glimpse of the guitarist’s immense talents. Abrahams would take keyboard wizard Bob Sargeant and big-beat drummer Richie Dharma with him to the Mick Abrahams Band for a single LP the following year. (Chrysalis Records, 1971)

Buy the CD from Amazon: Mick Abrahams’ A Musical Evening with Mick Abrahams

Archive Review: Mick Abrahams' Hoochie Coochie Man (2013)

Mick Abrahams' Hoochie Coochie Man
Our friends at Secret Records in the UK have dug up this recently-discovered and previously-unreleased collection of songs by British blues-rock guitar legend and former Blodwyn Pig frontman Mick Abrahams. Hoochie Coochie Man offers up 15 tracks that were originally recorded circa 2003/2004 and were seemingly lost until now, the album joining the label’s growing catalog of rare and obscure Abrahams discs. 

Featuring ten Abrahams’ originals written or co-written by the guitarist, along with a handful of well-chosen blues covers, Hoochie Coochie Man represents Abrahams in fine form. From jump street, I have a major bone to pick with the album’s lack of musician credits...Abrahams is clearly singing with other artists on several tracks, there’s some fine harp work peppering a few songs, and there is some solid musicianship, but you couldn’t tell it from the sparse info provided. Next time around, let’s not keep this stuff secret, OK?

That said, Hoochie Coochie Man is an entertaining collection, rife with the kind of blistering fretwork that you monster fans of blues-rock guitar eat up, the party starting with the lively title track. Abrahams nails the Willie Dixon blues standard (by way of Muddy Waters) with a rollicking arrangement, scorching guitar, and somebody’s flailing harp raging away in the background. The instrumental “Sunday Drivin’” is the kind of six-string romp that Jeff Beck used to crank out circa 1968 or so, while Abrahams’ original “Roadroller” is a swinging jump blues-styled rocker with plenty of jazzy guitar pickin’.

A cover of the Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee gem “Cornbread and Peas” is delivered with hearty vocal harmonies, jolts of scrappy harp, and subdued but elegant guitar and the slinky “I Ain’t Never” displays a different facet of Abrahams’ talents, greasy guitar licks and a languid tempo approximating the Piedmont blues style quite nicely. Overall, Hoochie Coochie Man is a lot of fun, Abrahams not re-inventing the blues but offering enough of his own flavor to spice up the musical gumbo; docked half a grade for the lack of musician info. Grade: B (Secret Records, released November 5, 2013)

Buy the CD from Amazon: Mick Abrahams’ Hoochie Coochie Man

Friday, July 2, 2021

Book Review: John Kruth's To Live's to Fly: The Ballad of the Late, Great Townes Van Zandt (2007)

John Kruth's To Live's to Fly
There are two things that everybody seemingly agrees on in the pages of To Live's To Fly, John Kruth's excellent biography of Townes Van Zandt: first, TVZ was one of the greatest songwriters that country music has every known; and second, TVZ was one messed up dude.

For those unfamiliar with the man that many consider country music's poet laureate, Townes Van Zandt was born to a wealthy Fort Worth, Texas family whose roots reach back to the city's founding. Like most musicians of his generation, a 12-year-old Townes was mesmerized by Elvis Presley's 1956 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Afterwards, Kruth writes that "overnight, Van Zandt became completely obsessed with rock and roll." Having grown up on the country sounds of Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams, Van Zandt's new favorites were Ricky Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Everly Brothers. It was his father, however, who suggested that he begin writing his own songs, pointing the young Van Zandt towards his eventual destiny.

Van Zandt went to college, but he really wasn't one to attend classes, instead preferring to lock himself in his room, drink, listen to records, and play the guitar. The education he received wasn't what his parents believed it would be. Concerned about his drinking and wild ways, his parents had TVZ committed to a mental hospital in Galveston, Texas where he was diagnosed as "manic depressive" and received three months of electric-and-insulin-shock therapy. The impact this treatment had on Van Zandt is arguable, but it most likely contributed to his ongoing adult depression, alcoholism and mental instability.

He married, went back to college for a while, finally dropping out in 1964, ending up in Houston doing the only thing he had ever really wanted to do: sing and write songs. Van Zandt fell in with a like-minded crowd of singer/songwriters that included life-long friend Guy Clark, Mickey Newbury, and Jerry Jeff Walker. It was here that Van Zandt honed his performance skills and began displaying the songwriting skills that have made him a legend.

Over the next 30 years, Van Zandt would go on to record some two-dozen albums for a number of independent labels and write scores of songs, some like "Pancho & Lefty" or "If I Needed You" becoming significant hits for other artists. He moved to Nashville in 1976, but headed back to Texas in '78 and didn't record again for almost a decade. He landed back in the "Music City" just when his songwriting fortunes began to rise, and it was in Nashville that he died on New Year's Day, 1997.

The mystery of Van Zandt's appeal is easy to solve. A charismatic personality and performer, Van Zandt possessed a great charm and intelligence. By any standards, Van Zandt wasn't really a country artist...influenced greatly by bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins, his music is more a mix of twangy folk and country blues. His skill with the language, however, is pure poetry, his lyrics expressing intricate thoughts and emotions but flowing casually. His influence on songwriters crosses all musical genres, however, and it comes as no surprise that artists as disparate as Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Mudhoney, and the Cowboy Junkies, among others, have recorded his songs.

To Live's To Fly" offers an in-depth and, at times, depressingly exhaustive overview of Van Zandt's life, from childhood through his death. Kruth interviewed hundreds of Van Zandt's friends, family and fellow artists and paints a detailed portrait of both the man and the demons that plagued him for most of his life. Most of all, Kruth provides an understanding of the man through both his actions and his songs. (Da Capo Press, published March 5th, 2007)

Review originally published by Country Standard Time music zine 

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Friday, June 25, 2021

Classic Rock Review: David Bowie's Pinups (1973)
In 1973, British teens were deeply in the grip of “glam-rock,” with David Bowie and Marc Bolan of T.Rex sitting atop of a cultural phenomenon that included hitmakers like Slade, Sweet, Cockney Rebel, Mott the Hoople, and Roxy Music as well as a legion of lesser-known bands. Glam even paddled its way onto U.S. shores in the forms of Lou Reed, Suzi Quatro, and the New York Dolls. Bowie himself was riding high with three U.K. Top Ten albums (Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, and Aladdin Sane), the latter two of which also struck gold stateside.

David Bowie’s Pinups

While Bowie was working on a vaguely-defined concept album based on George Orwell’s post-war dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (elements of which he’d weave into 1974’s Diamond Dogs), Bowie enlisted guitarist Mick Ronson and bassist Trevor Bolder from his former backing band the Spiders From Mars, along with Bluesbreakers drummer Aynsley Dunbar, to record a label-pacifying “stopgap” collection of cover tunes. With a track list comprised of mid-to-late ‘60s British records that Bowie loved as a younger man, Pinups was designed with an eye towards wooing teenaged American fans unfamiliar with the original versions of the songs.

Critics unfairly assailed Pinups, many writing that Bowie’s renditions of songs by the Pretty Things, Them, the Yardbirds, the Who, and others weren’t as good as the originals. Blah, blah, blah…these reviews missed the point, really, as Bowie performed these personal faves not with mindless mimicry of the originals but rather in his own unique fashion, reinterpreting them as he saw fit. He retained enough of the original flavor and melodic hooks to reel in listeners, but delivered them with passion and energy that created an irresistible playlist that appealed to fans like catnip. For many of us Bowie fans at the time, this was the first we heard some of these songs, prompting many to go out and look up the originals. It’s safe to say that the Pretty Things won over more than a few new fans stateside after hearing Bowie singing “Don’t Bring Me Down” or “Rosalyn.”

Like usual, Bowie was ahead of the trends, recording an album of cover songs as a lark at the peak of his 1970s-era commercial success. Truthfully, though, Pinups is a good album by any standard of rock ‘n’ roll. The aforementioned PT’s song “Rosalyn” takes the band’s basic blues-infused garage-rock blueprint, spins the tempo up to punk-rock levels of energy, and lets Ronson cut loose with his dynamic, razor-sharp riffing. The song quickly jumps into a tearful reading of Them’s “Here Comes the Night” which captures all the blue-eyed soul and heartbreak of Van Morrison’s original, while the Yardbirds’ cover of Billy Boy Arnold 1955 song “I Wish You Would” is all but shorn of its Chicago blues roots in favor of a piercing Ronson guitar riff and an uncompromising and fiercely reckless arrangement.


Classic rock legend David Bowie

The Mojos – which counted Aynsley Dunbar among their early members – are one of the more obscure choices here, and the band’s “Everything’s Alright” builds upon the song’s British Invasion roots with a glammed-up arrangement heavy on Bowie’s vocal gymnastics and Dunbar’s tribal rhythms. The Who’s “I Can’t Explain” veers delightfully onto Roxy Music turf with a slowed-down, almost languid performance punctured by cacophonic blasts of saxophone. Bowie raids the Peter Townshend songbook again for “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” the singer playing it straight down the line with a close-to-the-sleeve vocal performance wrapped around Dunbar’s Keith Moon-styled drum pyrotechnics.   
The mournful “Sorrow,” which had been a U.K. chart hit for both the McCoys in 1965 and the Merseys in ’66, was the break-out song from Pinups, and while it rose to #3 on the U.K. charts (#1 in Australia!), it found only a few diehard fans in the U.S. Bowie’s rendition is superior to either of the previous versions, offering the perfect balance of lovelorn melancholy and creative risks (in Bowie’s gorgeous multi-tracked vocals). By contrast, the Easybeats’ “Friday On My Mind” displays Bowie’s chameleonlike ability to take on different musical styles with ease, the singer delivering a spry and energetic pop-styled vocal riding atop Ronson’s scorching guitar licks. The Yardbirds’ “Shapes of Things” was another fetching tune that prompted young fans to seek out the original, Bowie balancing art and tradition with a reckless and joyful vocal performance. 

In spite of the critical barbs levied on it at the time, Pinups has weathered the decades since its release. Placed in the context of Bowie’s lengthy career – which spanned six decades and better than two dozen studio albums – Pinups is seen as a bona fide artistic triumph. With Pinups, Bowie stamped “paid” on his glam-rock persona, allowing the artist to extend himself musically wherever he chose to go. What the critics don’t know, the fanboys understand, and Pinups carried on Bowie’s commercial winning streak, topping the U.K. albums chart, hitting Top 30 in the U.S. and setting the stage for the enormous success of the following year’s Diamond Dogs. (RCA Records, 1973)

Buy the CD from Amazon: David Bowie’s Pinups

Friday, June 18, 2021

Archive Review: Jonny Lang's Fight For My Soul (2013)

Jonny Lang's Fight For My Soul
Fight For My Soul is the first studio album from guitarist Jonny Lang in nearly seven years, his first release of any sort since 2010’s Live At the Ryman set. Although Lang may have been a blues prodigy, releasing his solo album Lie To Me at the young age of 15, he’s run across more than a few obstacles since, some of them self-created, others placed in his way by an industry that often dulls talent before killing it outright. 

Lang’s post-major label career has seen him veer off into unexpected musical directions, struggle publically with his faith, and try to reconcile his spiritual and musical sides. Fight For My Soul goes a long way towards providing a light to follow for the troubled troubadour, but much like the recent Tedeschi Trucks Band album, there is little blues music to be found in these grooves beyond the guitarist’s previous deep-rooted influences.

That’s not to say that Fight For My Soul is a bad album, it’s just not particularly “bluesy” by any definition of the word that I know. The album-opening “Blew Up (The House)” is kind of a modernized Southern rock tune with a faint hint of blues, Lang’s soulful vocals, and a little schlocky 1980s-styled big rock production with funky harmony backing vocals. “Breakin’ In” shares a similar ‘80s pop-rock sensibility in its arrangement and delivery while “We Are the Same” masks its hip-hop and R&B flavors with the sickly moan of a string section. The title track evinces a certain amount of emotion punctuated by some psychedelic git licks but, for the most part, Lang’s enormous six-string skills are downplayed across the entire album in favor of his (admittedly) soulful vocals and overwrought lyrical style.

Fight For My Soul is overproduced by miles, and I’m guessing that a lot of time and money went into crafting these performances. It’s slick, calculated and, judging from the sales numbers, a lot of you are enjoying it more than I have. I’d have graded Fight For My Soul higher if Lang would have displayed more of his blues side, but this old school pop-influenced soul just don’t cut it in today’s ragged blues world. Grade: C+ (Concord Records, released September 17, 2013)

Buy the CD from Amazon: Jonny Lang’s Fight For My Soul

Archive Review: Leslie West's Still Climbing (2013)

Leslie West's Still Climbing
Given that guitarist Leslie West’s 2011 Unusual Suspects album featured such all-star fretburners as Joe Bonamassa and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, among others, many of us held out hope that long-suffering rock ‘n’ roll fanatics would latch onto the album as the out-of-control wildfire that it was and provide West with a bit of commercial juice. Sadly, a life-threatening illness and emergency surgery prevented the guitarist from touring in support of the album and it subsequently disappeared off the radar. 

Undeterred by misfortune, the big man with a larger than life personality has come roaring back with Still Climbing, the album’s title both a sly reference to the 1970 debut from West’s legendary blues-rock power trio Mountain as well as a statement of defiance in the face of his own mortality. West’s 15th solo album, Still Climbing offers up eleven brand spankin’ new performances, a mix of original tunes and inspired covers that explore themes of life, survival, and triumph over adversity.

Not as heavy on the guest stars as Unusual Suspects, West shoots for quality over with talents like Jonny Lang and Johnny Winter dropping by the studio. In many ways, Still Climbing is heavier than anything that West has done since Mountain, both in his monster fretwork but also in the album’s crashing rhythms and smothering, tuff-as-nails production. Winter brings his delightfully greasy slide-guitar licks to West’s original “Busted, Disgusted or Dead,” a wry, autobiographical tale with a razor-totin’ blues edge and gruff, Howlin’ Wolf styled vocals. 

A reverent cover of Percy Sledge’s R&B classic “When A Man Loves A Woman” is a wonderful duet between West and Lang while Dee Snider of Twisted Sister provides surprisingly effective vox on a hard-rockin’ cover of Traffic’s “Feeling Good,” West’s meaty guitar licks flying high in the mix. Originals like “Tales of Woe” display a different facet of West’s talents, his emotional vocals and elegant fretwork bulldozing the song to rarified heights. An engaging and entertaining hybrid of guitar-driven hard rock and blues, Leslie West’s Still Climbing proves that you can’t keep a good man down! Grade: B+ (Provogue Records, released October 29, 2013)

Buy the CD from Leslie West’s Still Climbing

Friday, June 11, 2021

Archive Review: Sid Selvidge's The Cold of the Morning (1976/2014)

Sid Selvidge's The Cold of the Morning
Funny story, kids...Memphis music legend Sid Selvidge was just another roots-rockin' country-blues folkie back in the early-to-mid-1970s. He ran around with the right crowd, performing as part of Jim Dickinson's Mudboy and the Neutrons band, hanging out with Big Star's Alex Chilton, and learning the ins-and-outs of the blues from the great Furry Lewis. An ill-timed and under-promoted 1969 solo debut album for a Stax Records subsidiary came and went without a whisper, while an ill-fated major label debut recorded for Elektra Records was shelved and never saw the light of day.

So, needless to say, Selvidge was, shall we say…apprehensive…when a Memphis businessman approached him to record an album for his newly-minted independent R&B label. Not wanting to be marginalized as he was at Stax, Selvidge asked for, and was granted, his own Peabody Records imprint and quickly went into the studio with his buddy Dickinson to produce the 1976 album that was to become The Cold of the Morning. Only, well…after the sessions were completed, the businessman got cold feet and backed out of the deal.

Copies of The Cold of the Morning had already been pressed, however, so Selvidge drove down to the Plastic Products plant in Mississippi and loaded the vehicle with LPs. He sold them himself out of the trunk of his car, sold them at shows and, with the help of the local Select-O-Hits distributors, got them into record stores regionally, the album eventually selling well enough to chart in the lower regions of the industry trade paper Cashbox. The Cold of the Morning received rave reviews all around and led to a series of NYC shows but in the end, without the financial resources to push it further, the album faded away and went out-of-print.    

Sid Selvidge's The Cold of the Morning

Omnivore Recordings has rescued this long-lost slice of Americana from obscurity with the first reissue of The Cold of the Morning in over 20 years. The label has rounded the original dozen LP tracks and supplemented them with a half-dozen outtakes for the CD release, while the cool blue vinyl Omnivore reissue offers up the first twelve and provides a download card for the rest of the bonus tracks. So, what does the album sound like? Well, The Cold of the Morning perfectly captured the artist's eclectic musical tastes, Selvidge and Dickinson piecing together a carefully-crafted song cycle of original songs, a couple of country-blues standards, a little folk material, and even a bona-fide George M. Cohan Broadway classic.

The Cold of the Morning starts off slow with a deliberate cover of Fred Neil's "I've Got A Secret (Didn't We Shake Sugaree)," the singer hewing closer to Elizabeth Cotten's version of the song than to Neil's original. It's a fine showcase for Selvidge's incredible voice and elegant fretwork, the song imbued with a bluesy, soulful undercurrent with just a hint of Memphis twang. Selvidge's original "Frank's Tune" is firmly in the folk vein, the based-on-a-true-story lyrics matched by his warbling vocals and spry finger-picking. Selvidge delves into Alan Lomax's field recordings for the traditional "Boll Weevil," a slippery, ever-evolving classic blues tune that had been recorded, in one form or another, by artists like Charley Patton and Ma Rainey, although Leadbelly's is probably the best-known version. Selvidge does the song proud, his a cappella vocals a mix of Patton and Leadbelly with finely-controlled emotion and clearly-defined highs and lows.   

Mudboy and the Neutrons

Selvidge, who performs much of The Cold of the Morning by himself or with Dickinson, is accompanied by the full Mudboy and the Neutrons band for the original "Wished I Had A Dime." With guitarist Lee Baker laying down a boozy groove, Jimmy Crosthwait banging on the washboard, and Jim Lancaster on tuba (while Dickinson adds some honky-tonkin' piano), the song is an old-school jug band-styled romp with lively vocals and a casual ambiance, Baker's wiry, bluesy git licks a fine counterpoint to Dickinson's rhythmic piano play. The Neutrons also back Selvidge on the jazzy "I Get The Blues When It Rains," a curious mix of Selvidge's jazzy, half-yodeled vocals (a nod to country legend Jimmie Rodgers) and Dickinson's blues-tinged piano licks.

Selvidge pays tribute to his mentor Lewis by covering his classic "Judge Boushé," his vocals closely mimicking Furry's Deep South patois as his nimble-fingered fretwork infuses the performance with electricity. A cover of Patrick Sky's "Many A Mile" is a lovely moment, Selvidge mixing up folk and blues with passion and energy to deliver a powerful performance. The same goes for Selvidge's loving cover of Lewis' "East St. Louis Blues," one of the long-lost bonus tracks on The Cold of the Morning. The singer's voice rides gently above the melodic guitar line, the performance a blend of Lewis' country-styled blues and Blind Willie McTell's Piedmont style.

Another bonus track, "Ain't Nobody's Business," is a blues standard, a ripping, up-tempo romp with New Orleans flavor best-known for Bessie Smith's 1923 recording, but since recorded by everybody from Mississippi John Hurt and Freddie King to Eric Clapton and Taj Mahal. Selvidge acquits himself nicely, capturing the spirit of the song like lightning in a bottle, his feverish delivery displaying a joyful élan in the performance.     

The Reverend's Bottom Line

Although The Cold of the Morning failed to make Sid Selvidge a fortune, or even a household name for that matter, it stands as a perfect representation of the artist's eclectic musical tastes and enormous talents. A heretofore lost gem of American music, the album would be Selvidge's proudest moment as an artist, and while he'd record a handful of future albums, he'd never do better than he did with The Cold of the Morning.

Selvidge would carry on with the Peabody label, releasing fellow Memphis music legend Alex Chilton's solo debut among other albums. Selvidge recorded a 1993 album for Elektra Records, and released his final work, I Should Be Blue, in 2010. A longtime champion of Memphis music, Selvidge co-founded the syndicated radio program Beale Street Caravan, his home for 20 years. The singer sadly passed away in May 2013 at 69 years old. A gifted singer, guitarist, and songwriter, Sid Selvidge remains one of the unsung heroes of Southern music, and while The Cold of the Morning isn't strictly a blues album, it's an entertaining and erudite collection of uniquely American music and well worth spending your time with... (Omnivore Recordings, released March 11, 2014)

Buy the CD from Amazon: Sid Selvidge's The Cold of the Morning