Friday, January 27, 2023

Buzz Kuts: Blink 182, Alejandro Escovedo, Gordon, Mike Ness & "No Boundaries" (1999)

BLINK 182's Enema of the State
Reviews originally published as a “Buzz Kuts” column, Alt.Culture.Guide™, June 1999

Enema of the State

There are those who say that punk is dead, crushed beneath the contradictions of the genre’s underground status and its commercial aspirations. Then there are others who say that punk’s still alive, bubbling beneath the mainstream while it gets back to its “roots.” Although I don’t know which side of this discussion to come down in favor of, I suspect that punk’s more alive than dead. The thousands of kids who lined up to shell out their hard-earned coin for a copy of Blink 182’s Enema of the State during its first week of release, placing the disc in the Billboard “Top Ten,” might agree with me. Blink 182 are unabashed punks, Enema of the State delivering its thrills in the form of punky power pop cranked out in a vein similar to Green Day or Offspring. The by-product of hundreds of shows in front of crowds of various thrashers, skate punks and hardcore wannabes, Blink 182 has honed their sound to a surgical edge. Songs like “Aliens Exist,” “What’s My Age Again?” or “Anthem” cut to the bone, showcasing more teen angst and sexual frustration than you can shake a stick at. Enema Of The State doesn’t break any new ground, nor will it be mistaken for any great work of art. It rocks, though, and sometimes that’s enough… (MCA Records)

Bourbonitis Blues

Through his 1980s work with Rank & File and the True Believers, Alejandro Escovedo has become a sort of “spiritual godfather” to the whole alternative, “no depression” insurgent country movement. To be honest, though, his solo work has always seemed to me to be closer to the sort of left-handed, wrong-side-of-the-tracks, introspective rock ‘n’ roll as practiced by Tom Waits. Passionate, troubled, insightful, and highly personal, Escovedo’s best material will always leave you ducking for emotional cover. Bourbonitis Blues does nothing to shake this illusion. A fine collection of songs, Escovedo’s musical and lyrical milieu as showcased by Bourbonitis Blues is nevertheless a somber, sobering artwork. That’s not to say that Escovedo is incapable of creating great beauty – “Irene Wilde” is a wonderfully moving and bittersweet tune, while “California Blues” is a spry tale of life on the road. Escovedo blends elements of roots rock and country with folkish lyrics and a little blues around the edges to create a heady musical elixer that is as authentic as it is sincere. A singular, visionary work, Bourbonitis Blues probably isn’t for everybody. But if you like a musical challenge that is full of life, intelligence and nuance, then you owe it to yourself to discover Alejandro Escovedo. (Bloodshot Records)


Britpop never really grabbed the imagination of American listeners on the same level as it did in the homeland. Of all the genre’s practitioners, only Oasis managed to crack the tough nut that is the U.S. market while also-rans like Blur, Pulp, Dodgy, and others have to be content with cult followings and a modicum of stateside critical acclaim. Although the music – itself inspired by 1960s “mod” acts like the Kinks or the Who – never caught on in the same way as, say, the Backstreet Boys, that isn’t to say that it wasn’t influential. Witness Gordon, who hail from Southern California and sound like as earnest a bunch of anglophiles as you’re likely to hear, with self-titled debut sounds more British than many of the Queen’s subjects. Gordon, the album, is a charming and lively collection of pop/rock tunes that offer witty lyrics, catchy hooks and, well, just a refreshing lack of either pop pretensions or rock ‘n’ roll gloom. There are several radio-ready cuts here that would make great listening on a summer’s day, songs like the hilariously-optimistic “Could Be Worse” or the thoroughly engaging “Fortified Grapes”. Producer Brendan O’Brien adds his usual deft touch to the material, creating an open atmosphere for the band’s lush arrangements and delicious harmonies. Perhaps the best British band to ever come out of the United States, Gordon is worth checking out. (FiftySeven Records/Sony 550 Music)

MIKE NESS' Cheating At Solitaire
Cheating At Solitaire

As frontman for Social Distortion, one of the more revered punk outfits to ever crash a stage, Mike Ness garnered a reputation as a fierce six-string player and no-nonsense performer. With an image that was equal parts snarling punk and surly tattooed greaser, Ness brought a fair degree of attitude and charisma to the role. Even a band as respected as Social D has its limitations, however, which is why Ness has stepped out into a new role as solo performer with Cheating At Solitaire. Bringing to the forefront some of the artistic influences that had crept into Social D’s latter day material, Ness has expanded his musical vocabulary to include influences as diverse as Hank Williams and Bob Dylan.

Ness gives up none of the energy or passion that he’s known for, however, Cheating At Solitaire nonetheless making a good effort of stepping away from Social Distortion’s legacy with songs like the western-flavored “Rest of Our Lives” or the bluesy “No Man’s Friend”. Ness is a brilliantly visual songwriter – that is, he paints his lyrics with vivid imagery and phrasing in telling his tales of crime and debauchery, hope and betrayal, love and loss. Although showing a degree of uncertainty, covers like Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice” or the classic “Long Black Veil” are still played with no small amount of respect and empathy for the material. There are even a number of guest appearances here, including nods by Bruce Springsteen, Brian Setzer and Billy Zoom. As a first solo effort, Cheating At Solitaire does not disappoint, calling on Mike Ness’ punk roots even as it strikes out into uncharted musical territory. It’s a strong first step that will leave the listener waiting eagerly for the next Ness album. (Time Bomb Recordings)

No Boundaries

A recent poll showed that only about 25% of the American people followed the war in Kosovo on a regular basis. Although I won’t get into the ramifications of this tragic indifference towards what is a travesty of American foreign policy, I will say that I’m glad that there’s some folks among that small percentage who actually care about the toll being paid by the average person in the former Yugoslavia. No Boundaries is a benefit compilation created by some of those people who do care, musicians who have donated their time and artistic efforts to try and make a difference. Proceeds from the disc go to organizations like CARE, Oxfam America, and Doctors Without Borders that are providing humanitarian relief in Kosovo. It doesn’t hurt that the cause that there’s a lot of powerful music here, either. Pearl Jam open and close the disc, Eddie Vedder lending his unique vocals and rock star presence to an unlikely pair of covers: the sixties chestnut “Last Kiss” and Nashvillian Buzz Cason’s vintage “Soldier of Love.” Vedder and PJ pull off the effort, bringing a resonance and passion to the popish material that seemed beyond the band’s ability. There’s other good stuff here, too, including cuts from Rage Against The Machine, Tori Amos, Indigo Girls, KORN, and Black Sabbath, among others. For the collector in all of us there’s a number of previously unreleased tracks and obscurities on No Boundaries, including inspired live performances from Neil Young, Alanis Morissette and Sarah McLachlan. No Boundaries is a solid musical compilation and an important fund-raising effort, showing the power of rock ‘n’ roll to change lives. (Epic Records)

The View On Pop Culture: R.E.M., The Honeydogs, "Almost Famous", Dave Thompson's "Alternative Rock" (2001)


A few short years ago, R.E.M. were the most commercially successful “alternative” band on the planet. The Athens, Georgia foursome proved to be consistent hitmakers yet retained a street credibility just below that of bands like Nirvana or the Pixies. The band’s last couple of albums have failed to ignite any chart passion, however, a situation that may be corrected with Reveal (Warner Brothers). With drummer Bill Berry leaving the band due to health reasons, the remaining members have substituted synthesizer washes for Berry’s organic big beats. The resulting music is less powerful, but no less enchanting. After 20+ years as a band, R.E.M. know how to create a glorious noise and Reveal revels in its lush instrumentation and wall-of-sound production. Michael Stipe’s ethereal vocals propel “All The Way To Reno (You’re Gonna Be A Star)” to soaring heights while “Imitation of Life” has more pop hooks than the Georgia countryside has kudzu. An altogether beautiful collection of songs, there’s nothing on Reveal to make you forget the band’s earlier successes, but it does show you where the trio is headed.

From Prince and the Time to the Replacements, Husker Du, and the Jayhawks, Minneapolis has proven to be a breeding ground for talented musicians. The city’s latest export, the Honeydogs, hope that Here’s Luck (RykoPalm) will earn them a share of the rock ‘n’ roll dream. The Honeydogs defy any easy pigeonholing, Here’s Luck at its best when delivering rockers like “Sour Grapes” or “Losing Transmissions,” songs replete with chiming guitars and delicious vocal harmonies. They’re at their most adventuresome on tracks like “Wilson Boulevard,” which matches careful vocals and mellow instrumentation with Beatlesque flourishes and pop overtones. An inspired musical cross between Roger McGuinn and Bob Mould, the Honeydogs mix punkish intensity and roots rock sensibility with twangy rhythms and intelligent songwriting on Here’s Luck to create an entirely new breed of rock music. While only time will tell whether the band receives it just due, the Honeydogs are cranking out fascinating music in the meantime.

Filmmaker Cameron Crowe and your humble pop culture columnist have a lot in common. We’re the same age, we both started writing about rock ‘n’ roll while in high school, we were both mentored by older writers (Rick Johnson, where have you gone?), he’s rich and famous and I’m…well, that’s where the similarity ends. But because of this shared background I was prepared to love Crowe’s semi-autobiographical Almost Famous (Dreamworks Home Entertainment). Patrick Fugit, who combines just the right amounts of awe and intellectual curiosity in his role as William Miller, plays Crowe’s music-loving alter ego perfectly in the film. Assigned a story by Rolling Stone magazine, Miller goes on tour with an up-and-coming rock band, falls in love with groupie “Penny Lane” (played with great charm and beauty by Kate Hudson) and loses his journalistic innocence as he becomes privy to the band’s internecine arguments and petty jealousies. Almost Famous is a funny, engaging film that you don’t have to be a rock ‘n’ roll fan to enjoy. The DVD release includes Crowe’s original Rolling Stone articles and the HBO “making of” feature as well as a music video from the film’s fictional rock band Stillwater.

Veteran rock critic Dave Thompson has better than 70 books to his writing credit as well as countless articles and album reviews in publications such as Rolling Stone, Mojo, and Goldmine. Thompson is also one of the most well-rounded music writers that I have ever worked with, possessing an extensive knowledge of the past 25 years of rock ‘n’ roll history. All of which makes Thompson uniquely qualified to pull together Alternative Rock (Miller Freeman), an 800+ page guide to, well, “alternative rock,” part of the Third Ear book series. There are a number of essays covering almost every aspect of the alt-rock world, including various musical genres like punk and ska, specific scenes like San Francisco’s Gilman Street and info on legendary British DJ John Peel’s BBC radio broadcasts, instrumental in jump-starting the careers of many new bands. Thompson also includes an A-Z guide to individual bands that includes capsule reviews of over 7,000 recordings. Alternative Rock is an exhaustive study on the subject, an invaluable guidebook for anyone who prefers their rock ‘n’ roll on the fringes of the mainstream. (View From The Hill, May 2001)

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Archive Review: The Amazing World of Arthur Brown's The Voice of Love (2007)

The Amazing World of Arthur Brown's The Voice of Love
What an odd little bird this one is…when he is remembered, if he is remembered at all, British rocker Arthur Brown is known for his diabolical, psychedelic 1968 hit “Fire,” much beloved by movie music directors and adventurous classic rock radio stations. Although practically defining the concept of the “one hit wonder,” in reality, Brown has been kicking around the biz for over 40 years now, recording about a dozen-and-a-half albums (a few in every decade since the ‘60s), hanging around with fellow eccentrics like Pete Townshend, Klaus Schulze, and Jimmy Carl Black (“the Indian in the group”), and even appearing in a number of films as both actor and musician.

The Voice of Love was recorded a couple of years ago by Brown and fellow Nick Pynn on 2” analogue tape, live performances created with largely handmade instruments (!). The result is a gloriously lo-fi event that manages to sound studio slick, the songs draped in odd instrumentation and delicate arrangements, with plenty of stringed choruses and quiet, organic effects. With a mix of original songs and choice covers, Brown tackles the many facets of love with no little insight and √©lan.

The music is sheer psych-folk, but it is Brown’s unique pipes that are up front in the mix. His voice often sounds like an old tire, but it remains effective nevertheless, yelping, crooning, and skipping across the lyrics like a stone across a pond, sounding like Solomon Burke one moment, and like a yodeling hillbilly the next. The result is sometimes disconcerting, sometimes emotional, but it’s never, ever dull, with Brown wearing his heart on his sleeve and exploring this ever-elusive theme with passion and soul. Standout Tracks: “Gypsies,” “Shining Bright” (Zoho Music, released September 16th, 2007)

Review originally published by Blurt magazine, 2008

Friday, January 20, 2023

Buzz Kuts: AFI, Tommy Bolin & The Polkaholics (1999)

AFI's Black Sails In The Sunset
Reviews originally published as a “Buzz Kuts” column, Alt.Culture.Guide™, May 1999

Black Sails In The Sunset

“Thinking man’s punk” is the only way, perhaps, to describe AFI. The band’s latest CD release, Black Sails In the Sunset, takes the listener on an intellectual journey that is not only unique among punk bands but downright odd, as well. Treading lyrical ground that is closer to Goth or death-metal bands – death obsessions, violent imagery, tribal ritualism – the foursome pound out songs like “Malleus Maleficarum” or “No Poetic Device” with a fury and power that many hard rock bands would find difficult to match. Lead vocalist Davey Havok can shout it out above the din and thunder with the best of them, writing lyrics every bit as oblique and multi-layered as any artist who’s studied at the feet of the master Dylan. Deciphering the poetic undercurrent is part of the fun, however, and one song – the brilliant “Narrative of Soul Against Soul” – speaks directly to the problem of teen suicide with a message that is as honest as it is positive. While some may blame rock music for the problems of society, I prefer to think that, for many, rock ‘n’ roll provides some of the answers they’re searching for. AFI’s Black Sails In the Sunset is a good example of this principle. (Nitro Records)

TOMMY BOLIN's Live From Ebbetts Field
Live From Ebbets Field

The guitar prowess of the late Tommy Bolin has been described in greater length in other forums that this, but suffice it to say that Bolin was one hell of an axeman, easily as far ahead of his time as, say, Stevie Ray Vaughan was ahead of his. Utilized as a utility player by outfits such as the James Gang and Deep Purple, it was with his mid-seventies solo work that Bolin cemented his reputation and created a following that remains loyal today. Live From Ebbets Field is a document of the best of two live Bolin performances from Denver in June 1974. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first full-length live disc for Bolin outside of bootlegs, and it lives up to his lofty reputation. A smoking set of hard rock and electric blues material, Live From Ebbets Field is a fine showcase for Bolin’s distinctive and fiery six-string work and a great introduction for the uninitiated. Mixing original material with appropriate covers like Willie Dixon’s blues classic “Born Under A Bad Sign”, which rolls into an energetic instrumental version of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine”. The band just sits back and lets Bolin shine, the guitarist ripping off red hot riffs like lightning bolts from the hand of Thor. Released by Zebra Records under the guidance of the Tommy Bolin Archive, Live From Ebbets Field is a fitting remembrance of one of rock’s great musicians. (Zebra Records/Tommy Bolin Archives)

The Polkaholics

Polka has garnered an undeserved bad rap that has only been partially redeemed by celebrity supporters like Drew Carey or Weird Al Yankovic (who’s been known to polka pretty wildly himself at times!). Now along come the Polkaholics to try and turn polka into a true media phenomena. Hailing from Chicago – deep in the heart of the Midwestern “Polka Belt” – the Polkaholics mix punk ethics and energy with good old-fashioned beer guzzling, sausage scarfin’ polka tradition. Although this schtick has been done before, I can’t remember when it’s been done so well. The Polkaholics’ self-produced debut disc provides three-quarters of an hour of wild polka fun, the trio blazing through a baker’s dozen tunes like “To All the Polka Fans” which begins with a spirited, Ramones-inspired “hey ho let’s go!” I don’t know what a “kishka” is but “Who Stole the Kishka?” is a bit of rollicking fun while the country standard “In Heaven There Is No Beer” manages to retain its twang in spite of its rave-up polka arrangement. Lest we forget, there’s also the “Beer Barrel Polka,” the “Fanny Shake Polka” and the hilarious “40 Years Of Shots And Beers.” Forget your inhibitions for a while and go wild with the Polkaholics! Tell the boys that the Rev sent ya… (The Polkaholics, self-produced)

The View On Pop Culture: George Harrison, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, "Hullabaloo", Joey Ramone, Argyle Bell (2001)

Joey Ramone

Who could have imagined that, thirty years after their demise, the Beatles would again rule the pop charts as they did at the end of the year? Sure, a lot of old geezers bought the greatest hits compilation Beatles 1 (Capitol Records), but a younger generation – one weaned on pop music – has embraced the Fab Four as another boy band. If the young ‘uns want to hear some real pop gems they should look no further than All Things Must Pass (Capitol Records). George Harrison was an integral part of the Beatles’ overall sound, his skilled lead and slide guitar work creating strong roots for Lennon and McCarthy to build their songs upon. Harrison’s classic 1970 solo album, reissued as a two-CD boxed set, includes bonus tracks and a booklet with liner notes, lyrics and photos. Harrison’s songwriting prowess, largely untapped by the Beatles, led to hits from All Things Must Pass in “My Sweet Lord” and “What Is Life.” Other stand out tracks, such as the lush “Beware of Darkness” or the lovely “If Not For You” are memorable songs as well, contributing to Harrison’s success as the first solo star of the famed Liverpool foursome.
There’s been a lot of hype surrounding the self-titled debut from the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (Virgin Records), and for good reason – the album kicks tail! Taking their name from Marlon Brando’s gang in the film The Wild Ones, B.R.M.C. offer a vintage rock sound that’s long on fuzz, feedback and obscured vocals. Cuts like “Love Burns” or “Whatever Happened To My Rock ‘N’ Roll” sizzle and burn like an open flame, drawing comparisons to English bands such as the Jesus & Mary Chain or Stone Roses. To these ears B.R.M.C. remind me instead of the sort of garage bands found on Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets compilation. There’s the same passion, the amateurish raw talent and the reckless abandon that often creates great music. The lush, wall-of-sound production provided Black Rebel Motorcycle Club overwhelms the senses, the album a multi-layered and finely textured mixture of raging guitars, primal rhythms and oblique lyrics. A solid debut disc that will peel the paint from your walls, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is a band worth keeping an eye on.   

Long before MTV or VH-1 or network specials by Garth and Britney, music on television was represented by shows like American Bandstand and Hullabaloo, which offered a variety of musical styles performed in a studio setting. The recent release of Hullabaloo, Volume 1-4 on video and DVD (MPI Home Video) is a godsend for music lovers. The digitally remastered DVD volume includes seven complete shows from 1965 and 1966, hosted by folks like Beatles manager Brian Epstein, actor Michael Landon and singers Trini Lopez, Gary Lewis and Sammy Davis Jr. The musical performances rise above the often absurd studio backdrop, with talents such as the Sir Douglas Quartet, the Byrds, Johnny Rivers, the Yardbirds, Chuck Berry, Sonny & Cher and almost two dozen others delivering their own unique brand of music. There are almost four hours of musical performances here and whether in black & white or NBC’s glorious Technicolor, Hullabaloo, Volume 1-4 provides a glimpse through the looking glass to a time past but not forgotten.       
Two men died over Easter weekend, one well known in the music world and the other more of a “behind-the-scenes” kind of guy. Both musicians were approximately the same age and although their careers varied greatly, both shared a love of music that defined them as artists and individuals. Joey Ramone was one of the true grandfathers of punk music, known the world over as lead singer and songwriter for the Ramones. A giant in pop culture, Ramone fronted his band for almost a quarter-century, their live shows legendary for their speed and fury. I can’t imagine punk bands like Green Day, Rancid, the Queers, Boris the Sprinkler, and others existing without the humor and simple honesty found in the music of the Ramones.

Argyle Bell was not as well known, but was no less well loved in his small world. A fixture on the Nashville music scene for almost twenty years, Bell was a talented musician and producer and an early supporter of many artists who would go onto varying degrees of success. Bell could always be found in the bars and honky tonks that serve as both a training ground and final stop for country and rock talent in the town, offering advice and support. He organized several star-studded charity tributes to musical idols such as Gram Parsons and he traveled often to Ireland and was instrumental in bringing Celtic music to Nashville audiences. His life touched many in the Music City and he could count artists such as John Prine, Vince Gill, and bluegrass picker Peter Rowan among his friends. In a cultural era of plastic pop stars and corporate modern rock, both men were true originals…and both will be missed. Rest in peace, guys. (View From The Hill, April 2001)

Friday, January 13, 2023

Blues Bites: Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, CeDell Davis, David Malone & the Sugar Bears (2013)

Junior Kimbrough's Sad Days, Lonely Nights
This February 2013 “Blues Bites” column took a glance through the looking glass and into the past to 1995, checking out a handful of influential releases that helped make Fat Possum Records one of the premiere blue labels of the 1990s and into the 2000s.

Junior Kimbrough – Sad Days, Lonely Nights (Fat Possum Records, 1995)
As the story goes, Fat Possum Records was created out of the desire of blues lovers Matt Johnson and Peter Lee to capture Mississippi blues legend Junior Kimbrough on disc. Save for a few regional singles, Kimbrough’s enormous body of work was destined for obscurity. A chance meeting between the duo and Widespread Panic keyboardist Jo Jo Hermann brought the financial support the young label needed and Fat Possum was off and running. The label went ahead to release Kimbrough’s album debut, All Night Long, a critically-acclaimed, award-winning disc that placed the small Mississippi label on the blues map alongside longtime players like Chicago’s Alligator Records and Black Top Records.

Kimbrough’s second Fat Possum release, Sad Days, Lonely Nights, is an excellent showcase for the incredible talents of this legend. Kimbrough’s guitar playing is top notch, soaring through the eleven cuts presented here like a bird-of-prey in flight. The former moonshine-runner and juke-joint owner brings an air of realism to his work that can only come from a lifetime of the blues. Although Sad Days, Lonely Nights has its share of highlights, the entire album is a blues lover’s dream come true. Razor-sharp guitar riffs ricochet from speaker to speaker, Kimbrough’s understated vocals driving cuts like “Crawling King Snake”, “I’m Gonna Have To Leave Here”, or the traditional “Old Black Mattie” with heartfelt emotion and sincerity. This is the sort of stone cold, authentic blues that a lot of rockers attempt to emulate, but few ever truly capture a portion of the life that Kimbrough breathes into each performance. Grade: B+

R.L. Burnside's Too Bad Jim
R.L. Burnside – Too Bad Jim (Fat Possum Records, 1995)

R.L. Burnside reminds me a lot of the great Muddy Waters. No uptown player, Burnside, eschewing the slick, highly-polished sound of those Chi-town bluesmen in favor of down-and-dirty Mississippi blues. Like Waters, Burnside has a gravel-lined growl of a voice, slurring lyrics into a mud-thick cocktail of passion and fire while the banging chords of the guitar keep a steady rhythm. Burnside’s Too Bad Jim was recorded live at Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint in Chulahoma, Mississippi, and is presented here, warts and all. The sound is hollow, often echoing Burnside’s throaty vocals and minimal guitar work. The resulting sound in not unlike what a lot of blues-based rock bands tried to achieve back in the late 1960s, cranking out lengthy jams in a large, cavernous hall for the tape player. On Too Bad Jim, the feel is entirely appropriate, imbuing the recordings with an ambiance that no studio engineer could ever hope to capture.

The songs performed by Burnside on Too Bad Jim, his second Fat Possum release, are rocking blues, Northern Mississippi style. The songs stand alone in the blues pantheon, unique compositions that are completely localized to a handful of rural Mississippi counties, featuring a musical and lyrical idiom shared by only a handful of artists. Cuts like “Shake ‘Em On Down”, “.44 Pistol”, and “Goin’ Down South” offer an original sound that is delivered in a traditional blues vein. They are highly-spirited works, full of vigor, imprinted by Burnside with a performance entirely his own. The scholars call it “Hill Country blues,” I simply call it invigorating. Grade: A   

CeDell Davis's The Best of CeDell Davis
CeDell Davis – The Best of CeDell Davis (Fat Possum Records, 1995)

CeDell Davis, stricken by polio at the age of ten and left partially paralyzed, adapted to his disability by turning his guitar over and playing it left handed. He developed a fierce slide guitar style that owes a lot to the Robert Johnson school of blues, and cuts like “CeDell’s Boogie” and “Broke and Hungry” sound a lot like Davis is a mere one step ahead of the hellhounds on his trail. The Best Of CeDell Davis is a fine collection of traditional blues delivered with a great deal of verve and energy.

Davis’ slide playing resonates throughout this material, at times fluid and melodic, at others chaotic and discordant. His voice booms above the mix, joyful and vibrant, lyrics hurriedly shouted so as to get back to the matter at hand, picking the guitar. Songs like “Keep Your Mouth Closed Baby” or “Baby Don’t Do It” would sound more familiar to the casual blues listener than, say, Kimbrough’s complex guitar-based material or Burnside’s obscure styling, but this does nothing to diminish their power. Davis is a classic bluesman, forged in poverty and tempered by the music he creates. As such, just about anything he would care to play could be considered “the best” of CeDell Davis. Grade: A-

David Malone & the Sugar Bears' I Got the Dog In Me
David Malone & the Sugar Bears – I Got the Dog In Me (Fat Possum Records, 1995)

By comparison, David Malone is a mere babe in the woods among this bunch. Twenty-five to thirty years younger than his Fat Possum labelmates, Malone brings a modern electric influence to the traditional blues styling of Kimbrough and Burnside. Malone is actually Kimbrough’s son, and his backing band, the Sugar Bears, includes his brother Kenny on drums and Burnside’s son Dwayne on bass. All are seasoned veterans, playing regularly at Kimbrough’s Mississippi juke-joint, Malone first joining his father on-stage at the tender age of six years old.

Malone’s I Got the Dog In Me successfully mixes the local, Northern Mississippi Hill Country blues style with elements of funk, rock, and 1960s-era R&B. Coming of age during the 1970s, the juke-joint was Malone’s birthright, the musical revolution carried on outside of Mississippi his bread and butter. Influenced by folks like the Isley Brothers, Teddy Pendergrass, and even Prince as well as his father, Malone blends styles so easily as to inspire awe. Whereas a cut like the funky “Do the Romp” or the soulful “I Got the Dog In Me” would easily fit into any urban contemporary radio format, the G.Q. smooth “You’re Touching Me the Wrong Way” could sit easily alongside similar roots-oriented artists like Robert Cray or Bonnie Raitt on the charts.

It’s the blues that Malone keeps coming back, to, however, his bloodline seemingly preordaining his inevitable musical direction. Malone has earned his blues honestly, though. Raised in extreme poverty in rural Mississippi, Malone credits a long five year stint in his home state’s brutal Parchman prison for turning him away from drugs and saving his life. The result is an honesty and sincerity that shine through songs like “Raunchy Stuff”, “Home Alone”, and “Trying To Make It Over”. Contrary to musical naysayers, who claim that young African-Americans are moving away from the blues, I Got the Dog In Me is proof that as long as men and women are forced to live the blues, they’ll be inspired to sing the blues. Grade: B-

Friday, January 6, 2023

Blues Bites: David Hidago, Mato Nanji & Luther Dickinson; Dave Fields; Rival Sons (2013)

David Hidalgo, Mato Nanji & Luther Dickinson's 3 Skulls and the Truth
This January 2013 “Blues Bites” column concentrated on guitar-oriented releases that rock the blues with highly-amped riffs and low-slung grooves. Although albums from Dave Fields, Rival Sons and others often fall on the rock side of the blues-rock equation, we think that a lot of you may dig this music nonetheless…

David Hidalgo, Mato Nanji & Luther Dickinson – 3 Skulls and the Truth (Blues Bureau International, 2012)
Take three bona fide legends of roots and blues music – David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, Mato Nanji from Native American blues-rock band Indigenous, and Luther Dickinson from the North Mississippi Allstars – and put ‘em in a studio and see what happens. That, more or less, is the story behind 3 Skulls and the Truth, a gripping, ripping, and sadly overlooked album that came about after the three musicians met as part of the Experience Hendrix tour and decided to take the friendship one step further.

Given Dickinson’s busy-bee schedule (aside from the Allstars, he also records with the South Memphis String Band and tours with the Black Crowes), I’m not so sure that the trio ever played more than a handful of shows in support of 3 Skulls and the Truth, and mores the pity, as this is the sort of bruising, 1970s-inspired blues-rock monster that was designed to roll down the highway and pick up fans with one bone-crushing live performance after another held at some dank, smoky cavern near your hometown. The band’s sound could best be described as an amalgam of ZZ Top, Cream, and Jimi Hendrix, i.e. a rumble-in-the-grooves mix of Southern rock, Memphis Soul, and Texas blues that grows on you like kudzu with each subsequent listen.

The opening track, “Have My Way With You,” sets the stage for much to follow on 3 Skulls and the Truth. Co-written by Dickinson, Nanji, and friend Lightnin’ Malcolm, the performance offers up a blistering six-minutes-plus of raucous fretwork, bashed percussion, and hoarse vocals that put the rock back into blues-rock. “I’m A Fool” strikes a low-slung groove with Nanji’s soulful, twangy vocals opening, lots of swirling guitar, and a concrete rhythmic foundation courtesy of bassist Steve Evans and drummer Jeff Martin, the song itself a hybrid of late 1960s Hendrix psychedelic-rock and 1980s-era Stevie Ray Vaughan power blues.

The muscular “The Worldly and the Divine” takes Cream one step further with a scorched-earth musical approach and a heavy, fat bottom line that is embellished by stratosphere-soaring fretwork while “Cold As Hell” displays a little more nuance without shedding any of the electricity, a slow-building intro leading into a swampy, simply mesmerizing bluesy-dirge with somber vocals and haunting instrumentation that reminds of Robin Trower’s “Bridge of Sighs.” Hidalgo, Nanji, and Dickinson all three share guitar (and vocal) duties across 3 Skulls and the Truth, swapping solos and rhythms with only slight differences in sound and technique apparent. The resulting twelve songs are definitely built for the old-school blues-rock fan that prefers a hirsute, eardrum-bashing sound with enough blazing guitars to create fits of joy. Grade: B+

Dave Fields' Detonation
Dave Fields – Detonation (Field of Roses Records, 2012)

From the first icy blast of “Addicted To Your Fire,” one gets the impression that guitarist Dave Fields is more than just another Stevie Ray Vaughan acolyte. The hard-rocking song displays scraps of Hendrix, Albert Collins, and maybe even a little Eric Clapton (especially in the “Sunshine of Your Love” styled descending riffs you’ll find two-minutes in). But when Vladimir Barsky’s spry keyboards are laid atop Fields’ explosive fretwork to achieve a different sort of vibe, you’ll be convinced that Fields is the real deal, a guy with a vision that rises above squalid barroom blues and upwards into the stratosphere.

Detonation is Fields’ third album, produced by studio legend David Z (who has worked with Gov’t Mule and Jonny Lang, among others), the high-priced board-wrangler coaxing another dimension out of the guitarist’s already rich, textured, guitar-driven sound. Fields’ live performances are rapidly becoming the stuff of legend, creating an industry buzz and all that, and Z has managed to capture a largish amount of the charisma and crackling energy that Fields and his road band bring to the stage. “In the Night” is a deliciously over-the-top, blustery blues-rock romp with sharp metallic edges and a heart of soul, Fields’ reedy vocals barely rising above Kenny Soule’s explosive drumbeats and bassist Andy Huenerberg’s iron-clad bottom line as he embroiders the song’s soul undercurrent with some pretty impressive six-string pyrotechnics.

Equally impressive is the Chicago-tinged “Doin’ Hard Time,” which features guest star Joe Louis Walker, a major league player that brings respect to Fields’ work with a powerful vocal and guitar performance. Fields rises to the occasion, giving as good as he gets with razor-sharp fretwork and a fine vocal turn that says he’s ready for the spotlight. Detonation features a different sort of guest in the form of jazz legend Delmar Brown, who brings his lively keyboards to the reggae-tinted “Bad Hair Day.” Brown has lent his talents to such giants as Miles Davis and Jaco Pastorius, so he’s definitely no “B-lister” slumming, and his contribution here is major, Brown’s rhythmic keyboard riffing and scatting, be-bop vox building a foundation on top of which Fields explores various melodic patterns to great effect. It’s a cool song, and an even cooler performance by the old lion and the young cat.

Fields has begun to attract attention for his songwriting acumen – British blues legend John Mayall recorded a Fields’ song on his Tough album – and Detonation displays his intelligent, rapidly maturing skills as a wordsmith in spades. Whereas songs like “Same Old Me” bring a new twist to the ages-old battlefield of romance (a well-worn blues theme), a bluesy shuffle like “Better Be Good” uses humor and subtle wordplay to address topical concerns. Fields seems to be his best on material like “Pocket Full of Dust,” however, using a blues base on top of which to heap a mess ‘o soul and rock ‘n’ roll with just a slight funky strut. Detonation is an extremely entertaining disc, the self-assured work of a talented guitarist and songwriter that seems one step away from stardom. Grade: A-

Rival Sons' Head Down
Rival Sons – Head Down (Earache Records, 2012)

In one of those strange occurrences that happen every now and then in the music universe, Los Angeles band Rival Sons – a hard rock quartet with one foot in the here and now and one firmly placed in the 1970s arena-rock era – signed with notorious U.K. extreme metal label Earache Records, a mismatched marriage if there ever was one. Evidently somebody from the label heard the band’s music on the Internet and decided to take a flyer on ‘em, and mores the power to them all, I say, because what the world definitely needs is more blues-influenced rock ‘n’ roll and less cookie cutter, Autotuned, radio-friendly corporate rock. With a couple of solid records under their belt, Rival Sons’ 21st century edge and throwback sound has won over a generation of crusty British music writers and earned them a Euro-based audience, but nary a glimpse of success stateside.

Still, the band’s most recent effort, the pulse-quickening Head Down, is filled to the brim with raging riffs, monster rhythms, explosive percussion, screaming feedback, and more than a little modern-daze musical innovation built on the backs of giants like Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, Deep Purple, and Free, among other “classic” rockers that genuflected at the altar of the blues. Singer Jay Buchanan’s vocals are a hybrid of rock ‘n’ soul that evoke memories of Robert Plant, with a little of Judas Priest’s Rob Halford thrown in for edge, and the Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson for that Southern-steeped soulful twang. Musically, the band dances across genres like old masters – “Until the Sun Comes” is breathlessly 1970s in style, mixing a lighthearted folk-pop undertone beneath a relentlessly rocking soundtrack, Buchanan’s breathless vocals mimicking Bob Welch-era Fleetwood Mac, while “Run From Revelation” throws a sly funk groove against a monster rock backdrop that reminds heavily of Bad Company.

The band is “blues-rock” less by intent than by accident, but Rival Sons still has its moments of Zeppelinesque grandeur, as in the sprawling two-part “Manifest Destiny,” which displays all of the band’s bone-crunching abilities. With Scott Holiday’s stunning bluesy fretwork swirling and stomping and muscling its way past the bouncer at the door, drummer Mike Miley bangs the cans with a manic ferocity just a little less than the late, great Bonzo. The two songs’ extended jam allows the band to live out its 1970s fantasies with reckless aplomb, cramming the roughly eleven-minute stretch with plenty of throwback flourishes as well as a few new ideas.

Holiday’s larger-than-life riffing here reminds more of Savoy Brown’s Kim Simmonds (think “Hellbound Train”) than of Zep’s Jimmy Page, but I’m sure that he’s probably OK with that, while the expanse of noise laid out behind the vocals and guitars hits your ears like a bucket of paint thrown against a concrete wall…you’ll never entirely sandblast the stain out, but you don’t really care. Part two of this epic offers up some tortured harp work slung low against the bludgeoning guitarplay, while Buchanan channels his inner Plant with a fine performance that manages to rise above the instrumental fray despite the overall delightful chaos. Taken as a whole, Rival Sons’ Head Down wouldn’t have sounded at all out-of-place in 1973, but here in 2013 it comes across less as revivalism than as a gale-strength breath of fresh air. Grade: B

Buzz Kuts: Angry Samoans, Choking Victim, Full, Len, Speak No Evil, Stretch Arm Strong & "THis Is Solid stATe Vol. One" (1999)

Angry Samoans' The 90s Suck & So Do You
Reviews originally published as a “Buzz Kuts” column, Alt.Culture.Guide™, May 1999

The 90s Suck & So Do You

Metal Mike Saunders is back with another Angry Samoans album, a too-brief eight-song collection of fast ‘n’ furious punk tuneage guaranteed to rock the paint off your walls and destroy your brain cells even while making you mosh in your parent’s living room. Metal Mike’s songs have always had a certain innocence of attitude about them, even when he’s being nasty – think of your typical Adam Sandler movie and you’re in the right ballpark. The 90s Suck & So Do You offers up some unpolished gems among its songs, like the love affair described by “Suzy’s A Loser”, the romantic fantasy world of “In and Out of Love”, or the hilarious commentary of “Letter From Uncle Sam”. Although there’s nothing here that’ll change the alignment of the stars, and Saunders may never be mistaken for a literary giant, Metal Mike nevertheless has the right outlook and attitude to spare. The 90s Suck & So Do You is a pleasant enough diversion, and sometimes that’s exactly enough. (Triple X Records)

No Gods / No Managers

There’s a great punk zine called Profane Existence that has as its slogan “making punk a threat again.” That’s the first thing that came to mind when listening to Choking Victim’s No Gods/No Managers. Following a lean, mean hardcore punk ethic with just a little Clash-inspired ska thrown in for good measure, Choking Victim offers up an anarchistic view of the world. Although tracks like “Fuck America” or the hilarious “Five-Finger Discount” won’t garner much airplay, they have won over this cranky old anti-authoritarian fart. If you want no-frills punk with a bloody cutting edge that is as threatening as it is entertaining, then No Gods/No Managers is for you. If you’d rather not be challenged, musically or intellectually, climb back beneath the sheets. (Hellcat Records)

Hotdogwater Cocktail

You can’t find fault with a group of unabashed punkers like Full for trying to breath new life into a crappy old song like America’s “Sister Golden Hair”. The way that they play it, fast and loud without a shred of wistful singer/songwriter melancholy, you’d never be able to tell that it was once a sickening FM radio staple. Although they attack America’s hit song with tongues placed firmly in cheek, the rest of Hotdogwater Cocktail is no joke. A fine indie effort, Full rolls their way through a rock solid set of guitar-driven punk tunes. Aside from the aforementioned cover, other highlights of Hotdogwater Cocktail include the funny, taunting “Music Critics”, the soulful “Please Forgive Me”, and “Pepsled”, with its odd syncopation. Not too serious, not too goofy, the trio Full strikes a fair punk rock balance with the imaginatively named Hotdogwater Cocktail. (Acme Entertainment)

Len's You Can’t Stop The Bum Rush!
You Can’t Stop The Bum Rush!

Proving that you don’t necessarily have to live in the hood to cop a deep groove, Canada’s Len shine bright and funky with You Can’t Stop The Bum Rush! Mixing old-school rhymes with contemporary hip-hop rhythms, pop culture influences and electronic manipulations, Len have cranked out a solid set of songs. The Len crew – The Burger Pimp, his sister Sharon, D. Rock, Planet Pea, DJ Moves, and Drunkness Monster – mix it up here, sliding from techno-grooves with digital vocals to straight-forward pop/rock numbers with ease. Guest stars include Biz Markie, Kurtis Blow, and C.C. DeVille of the Poison Clan, making You Can’t Stop The Bum Rush! a real old-school reunion. Primarily mixed by the Dust Brothers’ John King, Len’s debut is an impressive slice of sheer funkadelic mind candy. (Work/Epic Records)

Speak No Evil

In case none of you noticed, there’s a new hard rock/heavy metal revolution brewing here in the states. Although the first wave is made up of a bunch of hip-hopping hard rock wankers like Limp Bizkit or the deftones, the second wave is beginning to crest with a return to stronger, more traditional heavy metal thunder. Speak No Evil are one of the bands that will be surfing that second wave, their self-titled debut album kicking out the jams with a relish. Vocalist Curtis Skelton possesses a classic metal-slinger’s wail, capable of out-shouting highly-amped guitars even while caressing a lyric for all it’s worth. Drawing heavy on influences that include Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and Metallica, Speak No Evil nonetheless forge their own distinctive identity with this monster debut. (Universal Records)

STRETCH ARM STRONG's Rituals of Life
Rituals of Life

With a sound that is heavily reminiscent of early Metallica, Stretch Arm Strong thrash and burn their way through a truly heavy set of songs on Rituals of Life. The twin guitar attack of axemen David Sease and Scott Dempsey underline singer Chris McLane’s powerful vocals. Although the band brings a certain spiritual and intellectual fervor to their lyrics, the strongest moment on Rituals of Life is “To A Friend”, a heartfelt tribute to a friend paralyzed in an auto accident. It’s here that their true talents and emotions shine through, making for some potent rock ‘n’ roll indeed. (Solid State Records)

THis Is Solid stATe Vol. One

Much like Tooth & Nail Records has created a cottage industry out of producing Christian rock records that span a stylistic range from alt-rock to heavy metal, fellow Seattle label Solid State Records is developing their reputation as the home of the heaviest of the heavy. This sixteen-track sampler is a fair indicator of Solid State’s musical philosophy: you won’t find a wimpy band or song among the label’s artists represented here. From the muscular bass-heavy heavy metal of Living Sacrifice and the thinking-man’s rock of Stretch Arm Strong to the “take no prisoners” techno-thrash of Warlord or the sonic overkill of Training For Utopia, THis Is Solid stATe Vol. One is the sort of album that will drive your parents to distraction. Although many of the bands bring a Christian or otherwise spiritual perspective to their songs, it never gets in the way of bringing down the roof. Offering previously unreleased cuts by Living Sacrifice, Stretch Arm Strong, Embodyment, and Warlord, THis Is Solid stATe Vol. One presents hard rock with brains and balls. (Solid State Records)

The View On Pop Culture: Big Bill Morganfield, "Welcome Companions" CD, "Times Square", Da Capo Best Music Writing (2001)

Times Square (The Movie)

It’s tough being the son of a legend – just ask Jakob Dylan, John Carter Cash or Hank Junior their thoughts on the subject. So when Big Bill Morganfield, son of blues great Muddy Waters, decided on a musical career he certainly had big shoes to fill. Over the course of two albums, however, Morganfield has forged his own distinct identity and kicked out some righteous blues as well. With Ramblin’ Mind (Blind Pig Records), Big Bill expands his sound to include jazzy swing tunes (“Mellow Chick Swing”), R & B (“Little Angel”) and lowdown dirty blues (“What’s The Matter”) along with a familiar traditional Chicago blues sound. Ramblin’ Mind is a solid sophomore effort and one that bodes well for the future of Big Bill Morganfield.

Sometimes a good cause is all that it takes to create some great music. Case in point: Welcome Companions (Polyglot Music). Featuring an ‘A’ list of Georgia musicians, songwriters and performers, proceeds from Welcome Companions benefit the Tourette Syndrome Association of Georgia. Rick Fowler, the project’s guiding hand, received help from some impressive friends, folks like REM’s Bill Berry, Randall Bramblett, Jack Logan and Bill Mallonee of Vigilantes of Love, among others. Together they’ve assembled a fine collection of rock, country and blues tunes, many written by Fowler, who shows no little talent as a songwriter and guitarist. Among the disc’s highlights is the Delta-inspired “Infected With The Blues” featuring Jack Logan, Sherry Joyce’s soaring vocals on “Can’t Say No” and Jonathan Dorsey’s rocking “Dr. Jack.” Welcome Companions shows the power of music to act as a helping hand, with the performers here all delivering their best efforts for the cause.
The year was 1980 and new wave music had yet to make a commercial or cultural impact in the United States. Along came the film Times Square, a blatant exploitation of pop culture. The movie stiffed at the box office, received little cable TV exposure, and went out of print on video almost as soon as it was released. Due to a magnificent soundtrack featuring a virtual “who’s who” of punk and new wave, including the Ramones, Patti Smith, XTC, and the Pretenders, the movie would take on a mythical status. Finally reissued on DVD, Times Square (Anchor Bay Entertainment) lives up to its long-simmering hype. A heavy-handed tale of teen rebellion featuring raucous performances by Robin Johnson and Tim Curry, it is nevertheless the music – which is tightly integrated with the story – which saves the film from itself. Director Alan Moyle has gone on to make better music-oriented films (Pump Up The Volume, Empire Records) but not one that has had the long-standing influence of Times Square. Now if somebody would just release the soundtrack on CD…

The best writing on music isn’t always found in rock rags like Spin or Rolling Stone but rather in zines, newspapers and mainstream publications. Edited by Peter Guralnick and Douglas Wolk, Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 (Da Capo Press) collects some of the best writing you never saw on rock, pop, country and other styles of music. My favorite pieces in the collection include Eddie Dean’s profile of fanatical record collector Joe Bussard, Sasha Frere-Jones’ memories of Run-DMC and old-school rap music and Bill Friskics-Warren’s wonderful interview with June Carter Cash. There are writers here that you may have heard of before (Vince Aletti, Greil Marcus, and the legendary Lester Bangs) and those that you should have heard of (Alec Wilkinson, Heather Heilman, Neil Strauss). For anyone who loves music in all of its many variations, this is the collection for you. (View From The Hill, April 2001) 

Monday, January 2, 2023

The View On Pop Culture (In Memory of Bob Magid)

The Forgotten Door
Back in the spring of 2001, I got a phone call out of the blue at our farmhouse in Franklin TN. A guy named Bob Magid was on the other end of the line and I don’t remember where he said that he got my number – it had been in circulation and online for better than a decade, so it could have been from anyone or anywhere – but he’d seen some of my writing (again, who knows where?) and was impressed.

Bob published a bi-monthly community newspaper in Signal Hill CA called View From The Hill with a circulation of 50k or so copies in the area south of L.A. that included Signal Hill, Long Beach, and Huntington Beach. The paper published community events, sports, a smattering of localized politics, and other odds ‘n’ ends. He wanted to include a sort of entertainment column and asked me if I’d every written such a thing! Had I?! We discussed me penning a regular review column that would cover music, movies, books, and the occasional music festival occurring in his area. This discussion became “The View On Pop Culture,” my regular review column.

Bob was a writer’s dream – a light-handed editor who allowed me to cover pretty much anything I wanted, musically, from rock and rap to heavy metal and Americana as well as movies and TV shows and any other wild thing I could come up with, as long as I kept it reasonably “PG” rated. Bob was a real estate broker by trade, a community activist, and he dabbled in Signal Hill politics as city treasurer. He and his wife were big supporters of the local gay community, providing hospice care to AIDS sufferers who had nowhere else to go, and serving on the board of the local Gay and Lesbian Center.

Bob was a dreamer, and a diehard liberal with a fondness for books and his kids. He was a standup guy, who wanted to build something with his paper that he could leave to his daughters. Sadly, he had to discontinue View From The Hill when he developed Parkinson’s Disease and couldn’t carry on, and he passed away in 2008 at the age of 77 years.

I wrote 70 columns over almost three years for the publication circa 2001-2003, never got paid a penny for any of them, but finally had to shy away from my commitments for the View when life got in the way. For those three years, though, and a couple afterwards until Bob’s illness became his priority, we spoke on the phone weekly, sometimes about the column, but often about life, politics, our wives, and whatever. He once asked me what my favorite book was as a kid, and I told him about The Forgotten Door, about an alien kid who ends up on Earth and can communicate with animals. Published in 1965, I read The Forgotten Door and my mom’s copy of Snow Treasure over and over again, but I didn’t have copies of either book anymore.

A week later, a copy of The Forgotten Door showed up in my mailbox (I still have the book!). Bob had dug through used bookstores in Southern California to find me a copy. That’s the kind of guy he is. These columns have been out-of-print for a couple of decades now, but I post them here on the site in memory of a man I learned a lot from, Mr. Robert Magid...