Thursday, November 30, 2023

Archive Review: Scott Kempner's Saving Grace (2008)

Truthfully, I’ve struggled with this review of Scott Kempner’s Saving Grace for several months now; didn’t know how to start the review, really, much less figure out how to close it out properly. None of the standard rockcrit clichés seemed to fit when writing about Kempner’s first solo album in sixteen years, much less accurately describe an album as thoughtful, personal, romantic, intelligent and, well, so damn infused with the rock ‘n’ roll spirit as Saving Grace.

Then I heard news of the death of Levi Stubbs, lead singer of the Four Tops. With a voice that spoke directly to God, Stubbs sang some of my favorite Motown hits. I had a copy of the Four Tops’ Anthology album when I first moved out on my own back in ‘75 at the age of eighteen, a big blue three-record affair. It was the first disc, sides one and two, that provided a fitting soundtrack to my teenage romantic woes, Stubbs delivering timeless vocal performances on songs like “Bernadette,” “Ask the Lonely,” “7 Rooms of Gloom” and the biggest and baddest of them all, “Standing In the Shadows of Love.”

Thinking of the affect that Levi Stubbs and the Four Tops had on my own life and direction as a writer, and an adult, I listened again to Kempner’s wonderful Motown tribute, “Shadows of Love.” Beginning with a solitary drumbeat, a twangy, echoed guitar chimes in, leading to Kempner’s sad vocals. Describing perfectly the lonesome wakefulness of the wandering lover, Kempner sings “I turn on the radio/Maybe a little rock ‘n’ roll to save my soul/But push it seems has come to shove/For me and Mr. Levi Stubbs/We’re waiting for the heartaches to come/Standing in the shadows, standing in the shadows, standing in the shadows of love…”

Like Stubbs, Kempner is a romantic at heart, a musician and songwriter that believes in the redeeming qualities of rock ‘n’ roll and the undying power of love. As the song unravels, the singer describes the uncertainty and doubt of the freshly-heartbroken man, turning…much like I did thirty years ago…to the Four Tops for consolation from the anguish and pain of love lost. Musical trends may come and go, but some things reign eternal: the vagaries of love and greatness of Levi Stubbs are two of them.

Scott Kempner holds a special place in the hearts of those of us that genuflect before the altar of the one true rock ‘n’ roll. As both the swinging rhythm guitar-slinger with cult faves the Dictators and the primary songwriter and guitarist with roots-rock phenoms the Del-Lords, as well as across a pair of solo albums, Kempner has continued to pursue a creative vision of honest, hard-rocking music combined with smart, populist, working class blues-styled lyrics. Kempner’s solo debut, 1992’s Tenement Angels, was an expected treat, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the brightly-burning heartache the artist displays with Saving Grace.

The Del-Lords
The Del-Lords 1988 by Jeffrey Scales, courtesy Enigma Records

In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here and claim, without qualification, that the songs making up the first half of Saving Grace represent the most effective opening one-two-three-four-five punch that has been waxed since Springsteen’s Born To Run. Obsessed with love, but damaged by romance, the album is somewhat of an autobiographical diary of Kempner’s own recent ups-and-downs in life and love. There are, literally, no bad songs to be found anywhere on Saving Grace, Kempner imbuing his songs with a tragic dignity, mixing up a roots-rock, rockabilly, soul, blues, and folk music soundtrack in the creation of what is, without a doubt, the year’s best rock album.

Opening the album, “Beyond the Pale” starts with a Western-styled guitar strum, shimmering like an Arizona desert sunset while Kempner’s gentle vocals rise above the crimson hues. As the song’s instrumentation swells towards a crescendo, shades of a second, trembling guitar rise above the chimes, with a whimsical accordion adding its voice. The song’s message of hope in the face of widespread indifference sets the stage for the rest of Saving Grace, an album populated by star-crossed lovers and dreamers with their eye on the heavens.

“Baby’s Room” sounds like it could be a long-lost Del-Lords track circa Lovers Who Wander, with a similar musical structure that is part Dion and part Gram Parsons. A dark-hued song with twangy, Duane Eddy-styled guitars and low-register vocal harmonies, Kempner jumps across the surprising bridge with a flashpoint guitar solo and a bit of vocal gymnastics. The ‘60s-styled “Love Out of Time” is a wonderful tale of unrequited love, Kempner’s vocals simply gorgeous above a forcefully strummed rhythm guitar and swelling instrumentation. A rich, surf-happy lead guitar kicks in as Kempner’s voice grows louder and more passionate, the song finally spent in a wave of pent-up frustration.

The haunting guitarwork that intros “Saving Grace” sets the foundation for the song’s brilliantly poetic imagery, Kempner’s mournful, pleading vocals asking for just one more chance. It’s another mesmerizing moment in an album seemingly punctuated with such, Kempner’s passionate vocals-n-guitar weaving a soulful tapestry of emotion. Kempner quickly changes pace with the raucous “Stolen Kisses,” the song’s blistering six-string attack and shouted vocals hitting your ears like a cross between the Del-Lords and Jason & the Scorchers, two bands that were kissing cousins chasing the ghosts of Hank Williams in the first place. Behind a choogling rhythm, Kempner lays down his tale of love and betrayal atop a loud-and-proud sandpaper riff, launching into an incendiary solo

Scott Kempner
The rich instrumental backing of “Between A Memory and A Dream” swamps Kempner’s vocals somewhat in the mix, but does little to dampen the fire of his guitar. With solid riffing, ‘50s-styled doo-wop vocal harmonies, and even a few ringing Christmas bells, the song’s wall-of-sound production adds to the intrigue, as you have to listen closely to decipher Kempner’s clever and considerate lyrics. Kempner does an admirable job on the difficult Tommy Womack song “I’ll Give You Needles,” matching Womack’s original with an inspired reading that provides a different perspective on the song’s intelligent, dismissive, heart-on-sleeve emotional lyrics.

The tragic, foreboding “Blame Me” opens with a delicate guitar intro and Kempner’s deceptively soft vocals before tumbling into a tale of desperation and heartache so damn blue that your soul aches just listening to it all. By mid-song, the guitarist’s instrument has become possessed, wailing and crying and screaming like a caged beast, channeling the pain and anger and lovelorn with a slowly-escalating solo that strikes at the heart of the song like a dagger. Kempner’s lyrics are sheer dark beauty, but when accompanied by his masterful guitarplay, the result is pure magic.

Released almost four months ago, Saving Grace has all but disappeared from the musical landscape, remaining only in the minds and on the stereos of the diehard fans. Don’t let this wonderful album fall into the indignity of obscurity. Buy it. BUY IT NOW! Buy or die, Bunkie, lest the angry gods of rock ‘n’ roll strike you down with a punishment straight out of your most frightening nightmares…or worse yet, make you listen to another Britney Spears album…it’s entirely your choice. (2 Minutes 59 Records, released May 1st, 2008)

Review originally published by the Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog, 2008

Friday, November 24, 2023

Archive Review: James Cotton's Cotton Mouth Man (2013)

There are few in the annals of blues music that stand as tall as “Mr. Superharp,” James Cotton, the gifted singer and harmonica wizard that managed to fill the hole left by Little Walter and Junior Wells in Muddy Water’s late 1950s band. Cotton spent better than a decade blasting out his powerful, but nuanced harp alongside the fellow Chicago blues legend, before setting out on his own to build a Hall of Fame quality legacy of his own. Solo albums like 1974’s 100% Cotton and 1984’s High Compression may have earned Cotton a fair amount of acclaim, but it was Harp Attack!, his 1990 collaboration with Junior Wells, Carey Bell, and Billy Branch that cemented Cotton’s reputation as one of the biggest, baddest harp players on any side of Chicago.    

Cotton’s 2010 album Giant – his first in six years – was heralded as a return to form for the Chicago blues legend, and while his harp playing remained strong, Cotton’s once formidable voice has worn down with time. As such, guitarist Slim Allen handled the lion’s share of vocals on Giant, and the results just weren’t as satisfying as one may have liked. For Cotton Mouth Man, the bluesman’s quick follow-up to Giant, Cotton brought in a few guests like Ruthie Foster and Gregg Allman to sing a song, but most of the vocal chores are left up to the talented Darrell Nulisch from Cotton’s touring band, whose soulful Texas twang serves as the perfect musical foil to Cotton’s raging harp.

James Cotton’s Cotton Mouth Man

Cotton Mouth Man was produced in Nashville by Tom Hambridge, who is fast becoming the blues industry’s “go to” guy. Besides Hambridge’s natural feel for, and understanding of the music, he brings his own skills as a drummer and songwriter. Hambridge co-wrote 12 of the 13 songs here, many with Cotton, with the idea of telling the harp player’s life story in song. He surrounded Cotton with other instrumental talents like keyboardist Chuck Leavell, guitarist Rob McNelly, and bassist Glenn Worf as well as Tom Holland, Noel Neal, and Jerry Porter from Cotton’s road band. With a sturdy framework in place, Hambridge cuts ‘em all loose and watches the sparks fly. The album-opening title tracks launches with a funky guitar riff, a loose-limbed beat, and squalls of harmonica when Nulisch’s energetic vocals jump into the fray. Guest guitarist Joe Bonamassa send notes flying every which way above a lively rhythm, the song sounding like a late-night club jam, loud and boisterous but plenty entertaining.

Guest vocalist Gregg Allman drops by for “Midnight Train,” Cotton’s Delta-inspired, DeFord Bailey-styled locomotive harp licks opening the door for former Allman Brothers Band member Leavell’s Southern-fried piano-pounding. Allman’s vocals here are smoother and more soulful than one might expect, but it sounds like he’s having a heck of a time, and the song’s sly Memphis groove is contagious. Keb’ Mo’ provides a low-key, but effective country-blues styled vocal performance to “Mississippi Mud,” Cotton’s subtle harmonica flourishes enhancing the power of the lyrics as Leavell’s Pinetop Perkins-influenced piano notes tinkle away in the background. Cotton’s harpwork here is sublime and emotional, a truly fine example of why he’s held in such high esteem.

Wrapped Around My Heart

“Something For Me” is a high-energy blues rave-up, the kind of loudly-amped houserocker you’d hear blowing gale force out of a window of some North Mississippi Hill Country juke-joint. Warren Haynes adds his flamethrower vocals and guitar to the song, Cotton’s harp twisting and pounding at the arrangement like a jackhammer while the guitars scrape and buzz like an angry beehive. By contrast, Ruthie Foster’s powerful vocals on the bluesy torch song “Wrapped Around My Heart” rival Etta James at her most vulnerable, the lyrics drenched in emotion and draped with Cotton’s soulful harp play while Leavell’s chiming Hammond B3 brings a gospel vibe to serve as a backdrop. Foster’s voice here is pure heartbreak, easily one of the best things I’ve ever heard her do, the performance more than enough to silence any questions as to her blues bona fides.

The great Delbert McClinton brings his bold, time-tested, honky-tonk styled vocals to “Hard Sometimes,” a roots-rock oriented number that nevertheless offers up a foot-stomping rhythm, Leavell’s brassy pianoplay, and the constant, soul-shaking blasts of Cotton’s harmonica. A slight echo is layered onto Cotton’s electric harpwork for “Blues Is Good For You,” the Chicago blues legend setting a tone for the song’s shuffling rhythm as Nulisch’s soulful, spry vocals breathe life into the lyrics with humor, wit, and intelligence. The album-closing “Bonnie Blue” is Cotton’s lone vocal take on Cotton Mouth Man, a Delta-dirty acoustic blues joint featuring Colin Linden’s slinky resonator guitar playing. Cotton’s time-ravaged voice is oddly appropriate, and he compliments the biographical lyrics with his superb harpwork, which brings a little of his mentor, Sonny Boy Williamson to the table.             

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

James Cotton has earned his enormous reputation honestly and, unlike some of his colleagues in the blues, he’s never seemingly been one to crank out product just to make a buck and thus dilute his legacy. Even by the lofty standards set by such undeniable blues classics like High Compression or Harp Attack!, however, Cotton Mouth Man is a considerable success. Cotton’s voice may be shot, but he has the talented Nulisch to cover that base, and his harp playing has lost little of its power or distinctive artistry, even after better than five decades of abuse. Cotton Mouth Man is a worthy addition to the harp legend’s canon, an album that I believe time will judge to be as classic as Cotton’s earlier triumphs. (Alligator Records, released May 7, 2013)

The View On Pop Culture: Voivod, The Immortal Lee County Killers, 'Life During Wartime' (2003)

Voivod's The Multiverse

Canada’s Voivod has been around for so long that it’s easy for heavy metal fans to overlook these ancient mariners of the genre. Voivod has consistently evolved as a band over the past twenty years, incorporating progressive-rock elements into the band’s unrelenting sonic overkill. The resulting music is often challenging but never dull. During the mid-to-late-‘90s, Voivod hit a creative brick wall and the remaining band members just gave up in 2001.

Sometimes all it takes is a different perspective to put a band back on track, though, and that seems to be the case with The Multiverse (Chophouse Records), Voivod’s “comeback” album. With three-quarters of the original band reuniting for another go at the brass ring, and with former Metallica bassist Jason Newsted helping out, the band sounds re-energized and ready to take on the legion of nu-metal poseurs that have appropriated all or part of the Voivod sound.

The Multiverse offers vocalist Denis “Snake” Belanger’s best set of songs in years, obtuse, imagery-laden lyrics that require your full attention and repeated listening. Guitarist Denis “Piggy” D’Amour shreds the strings with brutal grace and drummer Michel Langevin seems to have found the perfect foil in Newsted, the pair’s explosive rhythms guaranteed to bounce around your skull for a while even after you turn off the stereo. There’s not another band that constructs songs the way that Voivod does, either. Eschewing the ball-peen-hammer-to-your-frontal-lobe method practiced by many metal bands, Voivod manage to blend melody and madness together to create something entirely new. The band throws chunks of classic metal, thrash, industrial noise, psychedelica and hardcore punk into the blender, adds literary influences like Michael Moorcock and J.G. Ballard, and begins slicing-and-dicing.

The Multiverse is rich with dagger-like riffs and nuclear rhythms; Belanger’s gravel-lined vocals perfect for Voivod’s aural assault. “Real Again?” marchs to a martial beat, D’Amour’s stellar guitar work representing the scythe while Newsted’s bass brings the hammer down on your noggin. “I Don’t Wanna Wake Up” sounds like the 13th Floor Elevators on adrenaline and amphetamines while the nightmarish title cut opens with a recurring, echoed guitar that pounds you into submission so that by the time the band kicks in loudly and “Snake” starts howling. you’ve entered a dervish-like trance. “Reactor” burns brighter than a supernova, shimmering guitars stabbing through the mix and punctuating Belanger’s best Johnny Rotten vocalese. With The Multiverse, Voivod returns to show the young pups how it’s done, creating intelligent heavy metal for the discerning fan.

The Immortal Lee County Killers' Love Is A Charm
Nothing could prepare even the most jaded music fan for the musical behemoth that is the Immortal Lee County Killers. Roaring out of Alabama like a drunken redneck with a trunk full o’ shine and dangerous thoughts of a felonious nature, the duo’s second album, Love Is A Charm of Powerful Trouble (Estrus Records) offers a unique and somewhat mystical perspective on romance. Guitarist “El Cheetah” and drummer “J.R.R. Token” bang out their fractured electric blues with a passion and aggression that similar outfits like the Soledad Brothers or the White Stripes could never hope to match, pairing punk rock attitude with the nightmarish quality of the best blues.

The Immortal Lee County Killers have built their sound upon the Mississippi blues tradition. Smashing together the best of the Delta and Hill Country styles, the Killers have created a literal Frankenstein of the blues that possesses the heart of Howlin’ Wolf, the brain of Willie Dixon and the soul of Son House, the monster haunted by the Johnson’s demons (Robert and Tommy). El Cheetah’s jagged-edge guitar style cuts and bruises like a broken bottle, reinventing songs like R.L. Burnside’s “Going Down South” with haunting vocals and a violent beat while Token’s staccato rhythms drive the title cut, “Love Is A Charm,” towards the insane edge of what society considers “polite.” After the weary “Truth Through Sound” lulls you into an uneasy treaty with the band, the Killers come out with punches flying, the traditional blues number “Rollin’ And Tumblin’” cold-slapping the listener back to cruel reality.

To be honest, neither Voivod nor the Immortal Lee County Killers create what you could call “gentile” music, meant to be purchased, consumed and discarded with yesterday’s trends and fashions. Both bands knock on the door of propriety, breaking through the barriers of what has been and what could be. While Voivod mines the heavy metal vein with its futuristic soundscapes and tone poetry, the Immortal Lee County Killers are possessed by the spirits of a thousand and one bluesmen, the talented duo ignoring critics and purists alike to blaze their own trail across the blues horizon.


A number of musicians have decided that the best way to protest the war in Iraq is through song, consequences be damned. Of course, none of them are the Dixie Chicks, either – rock ‘n’ roll’s grand tradition of dissent is an accepted facet of the music while Nashville’s fealty to blind patriotism is sorely tried in times of disharmony. Check ‘em out for yourself online, since it’s doubtful that any of these tunes will be released on CD.

The Beastie Boys’ “In A World Gone Mad” is a brief, funky rant with an infectious beat and rapid-fire lyrics. Former Rage Against the Machine frontman Zach de la Rocha, teams with DJ Shadow for the blistering “March of Death,” de la Rocha spitting words like an AK-47 while Shadow drops beats like bombs from the belly of a B-52. Lenny Kravitz’s boisterous “We Want Peace” echoes the Clash’s best work and is available exclusively from the Rock The Vote web site ( while John Mellencamp’s folkish “To Washington” reminds me of Phil Ochs or Pete Seeger. (View From The Hill, February 2003)

Friday, November 17, 2023

Archive Review: Theresa Andersson's Shine (2005)

Theresa Andersson’s Shine
Talented singer, songwriter, and musician Theresa Andersson brings quite a pedigree to her work. She spent nearly a decade playing her electric violin behind acclaimed blues/jazz guitarist Anders Osborne and has provided vocals and/or violin to recordings by Cowboy Mouth, World Leader Pretend, Galactic, Marva Wright, and many others. Along the way, Andersson has won just about every award that New Orleans has available to bestow upon local performers, including the 2003 “Big Easy Award for Best Female Artist.” Considering the rich musical heritage of the city, Andersson’s accolades represent quite an accomplishment.

Theresa Andersson’s Shine

Poised for a major breakthrough to a national audience, Shine is Andersson’s excellent sophomore effort. Across the dozen songs collected on Shine, Andersson mines the same vein of American music as John Hiatt, Sonny Landreth, and Marc Broussard. That is, her music crosses rock, folk, blues, and country with the effortless grace of a dancer. Andersson’s voice is thin – whispery really – but it is warm and not shrill by any measure. Quite distinctive, Andersson’s vocals don’t mimic popular trends and artists. Earthy and capable of great expression of emotion and passion, Andersson’s voice provides a timeless quality to her performances.

It’s with her lyrics that Andersson really shines, however. Bringing a new perspective to the familiar ground of love and relationships, Andersson is a romantic at heart who (too) often wears her heart on her sleeve. Evincing a working class point-of-view native to the blues or country music, Andersson fills her songs with wonderfully brilliant imagery and poetic flourishes. At once both sexy and coy, she falls hard but always picks herself up. Even when reading other songwriter’s material – as with Anders Osborne’s “It’s Gonna Be Okay” – Andersson grabs the material and claims it for her own with magnificent vocal performances. The album-closing rendition of Grayson Capp’s “Lorraine’s Song” (from the movie A Love Song For Bobby Long) features Sonny Landreth playing behind Andersson.  

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Wielding her electric violin like a magician’s wand across each song’s arrangement, Andersson is able to alternately provoke empathy, sadness or joy within the instrument’s range and the context of the lyric. Backed by a top-notch band that includes guitarists Glenn LeBlanc and Shane Theriot, Andersson has delivered a solid second effort in Shine, drawing on her experience to craft a fine showcase for her considerable talents. An accomplished musician, a skilled-but-still-maturing songwriter and an electrifying live performer, Theresa Andersson is sexy, beautiful and talented. Along with fellow artists Marc Broussard and Grayson Capps, expect her to put Lousiana back onto the musical map. (Basin Street Records, 2004)

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

The View On Pop Culture: The Police, American Hi-Fi, NoFX (2003)

The Police's Zenyatta Mondatta

During the early ‘80s, the Police were the biggest band on the block; selling millions of records and selling out live shows across the planet. The band’s unique and highly original mix of Britpop, punk rock, jazz, and reggae won critical kudos even while moving many units off the shelves back during the industry’s “good old days.” The band’s success can be squarely attributed to Sting’s pop songwriting skills and the instrumental prowess of guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland. These three talents struck hard and fast, releasing five albums in six years before internal strife broke the band apart. The band’s entire catalog has been reissued on CD with brilliantly remastered sound and eco-friendly digipak packaging.   
As the Reagan era began in 1980, the Police released the groundbreaking Zenyatta Mondatta (A & M Chronicles). The band had enjoyed minor hits with “Roxanne” and “Message In A Bottle” from their first two albums, but hadn’t yet gained the large mainstream audience they would later enjoy. Their third album would change all that with a pair of big hits, the Lolita-tale “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” and the light-hearted, reggae-flavored “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da.” The quirky “Canary In A Coalmine” would receive a share of radio airplay while the rhythmic “Voices In My Head” would become a big club hit. The photogenic band members would benefit from the advent of the video age, with MTV asserting its presence on America’s television sets and the Police ready with imaginative videos to broadcast. The band would add more elements of jazz and world music to its palette with subsequent albums, but Zenyatta Mondatta is as straightforward a pop/rock album as you could have asked for at the time.   

Often dismissed as a creative stopgap, 1981’s Ghost In the Machine (A & M Chronicles), the fourth Police album, is nevertheless a vastly underrated collection of songs. The album yielded a big radio hit in “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” and enjoyed minor hits with “Spirits In the Material World” and “Invisible Sun.” Musically, Ghost In the Machine features more electronic rhythms and synthesized sounds, mixed alongside jazzy horns and Sting’s most understated vocals yet. The band also experiments with more world beat influences here, such as adding a dub echo to “One World (Not Three),” a direction they would further when they next returned to the studio.

Although not the best-known Police album, Ghost In the Machine served as an important bridge between the punkish pop of their early albums and the complex, culturally-informed sound they would bring to Syncronicity two years later. This set of reissues does the band’s work justice, reminding listeners of just how good a group of musicians the Police were and of Sting’s growing stature as a songwriter. Frontman Sting (née Gordon Sumner) would become the lone solo star of the band, subsequently enjoying a lengthy, high profile mainstream career. None of the seven reissue Police CDs (six studio and one live) includes any bonus tracks or unreleased material, an unfortunate oversight that would have shed further light on the brief career of these hall-of-fame rockers.
American Hi-Fi's The Art of Losing
Back in 2001, American Hi-Fi scored a minor alt-rock radio hit with the hook-heavy “Flavor of the Weak,” a tragic tale of unrequited love from the band’s worthwhile debut. This time out, the band kicks off its sophomore effort, The Art of Losing (Island Records), with a pair of classic pop/rock monsters in the title track and the tongue-in-cheek “The Breakup Song.” With riffs larger than Godzilla and as dangerous as an angry doberman, American Hi-Fi builds on the Cheap Trick tradition with screaming six-string work and explosive rhythms, vocalist Stacy Jones spitting out his lyrics with punkish glee.

The rest of The Art of Losing follows in the much same direction as the two opening tracks, Jones and crew smacking together Nirvana-flavored big grunge beats with Billy Corgan-styled buzzsaw guitars and radio-friendly musical hooks. Jones’ lyrics explore the many facets of love and romance with snarling punk rock attitude and singer/songwriter sensitivity while highly-flammable riffage and crashing rhythms surround his vocals in the mix. This is rock & roll with guts and passion and brains, American Hi-Fi beating the sophomore curse with The Art of Losing. Fans of the band are also encouraged to seek out Rock N’ Roll Noodle Shop (Universal International), a live album from Japan that reprises much of the material from American Hi-Fi’s debut. Available only as an import, this writer has seen several copies in used music stores, so evidently a number of CDs have made their way to these shores, awaiting a pair of sympathetic ears.

As the country prepares for war with Iraq, there has been an uncomfortable silence from the rock ‘n’ roll community. Punk rockers NoFX have never had a reputation as political rabble-rousers like, say, the Dead Kennedys or Bad Religion, but that should change when the band releases it’s The War On Errorism album in May. To give fans a taste of the musical onslaught to come, they’ve released Regaining Unconsciousness (Fat Wreck Chords), a four-song EP with tunes from the upcoming album. Let the Reverend tell you, boys and girls, Fat Mike, El Jefe and the guys have nailed it this time out. Taking aim at the media monopoly, the current administration and the war machine, NoFX brings its snotty punk-pop sound to socially conscious lyrics like nobody else. The album and EP are worth getting if only for “Franco Un-American,” the tune namechecking both Howard Zinn and Ralph Nader even while managing to rhyme “apathy” and “Noam Chomsky,” a first in my book. Stay tuned for more on NoFX… (View From The Hill, January 2003)

Friday, November 10, 2023

Archive Review: John Mellencamp's The Lonesome Jubilee (1987/2005)

John Mellencamp’s The Lonesome Jubilee
John Cougar Mellencamp’s breakthrough album, 1983’s Uh-Huh, provided the artist with the commercial success he craved while 1985’s Scarecrow brought him the critical respect that he’d earned. Two years later, The Lonesome Jubilee brought Mellencamp something else entirely – freedom. With this 1987 album release, Mellencamp not only claimed his place alongside Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Bob Seger as a respected working class wordsmith, he also won the creative freedom to explore his muse unlike anything he had previously recorded.

John Mellencamp’s The Lonesome Jubilee

Extending the lyrical themes he began outlining in detail on the American Fool album a half-decade earlier, songs like “Paper In Fire,” “Cherry Bomb,” and “The Real Life” continue Mellencamp’s fascination with life in the heartland and the everyday trials and tribulations of the average man, woman and child. These hit singles only tell part of the story, however, with Mellencamp pursuing a darker vision of the American Dream™ on the album’s less well-known songs. Lyrical broadsides like “Down and Out In Paradise,” with its bleak American landscape, the anthemic “We Are the People” and “Hard Times For An Honest Man” suggest that nearly two terms of Conservative Reagan administration policy had seriously eroded the country’s working class prospects by ‘87.

The songs still rock hard on The Lonesome Jubilee in spite of Mellencamp’s ongoing evolution in sound. Incorporating instrumentation like fiddle, accordion, and acoustic guitars, Mellencamp adds an Appalachian flourish to his material, extending his artistic milieu to include elements of folk and country alongside his native roots-rock. It would prove to be an excellent move, creating a distinctive and timeless flavor to his material that would serve as Mellencamp’s trademark well into the next decade. A bonus cut added to this 2005 CD reissue of The Lonesome Jubilee – the previously unreleased “Blues From the Front Porch” – is a real gem. A Delta-dirty duet with singer Crystal Taliefero, it is a fitting addition to the album.  

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

The Lonesome Jubilee has withstood the test of time, the songs sounding as fresh, original and, sadly, lyrically relevant as they were nearly two decades ago. Not amazingly, John Mellencamp’s musical legacy seems to grow with each passing year, the artist that once struggled for critical acclaim now overshadowing his colleagues in defining the voice of a decade. The Lonesome Jubilee stands tall as both one of Mellencamp’s best works and as a truly classic masterpiece of rock ‘n’ roll. (Island Def Jam/Universal, 2005)

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

The View On Pop Culture: Richard Johnston, The Reunion Show, French Kicks, Drowning Pool DVD (2003)

Richard Johnston's Foot Hill Stomp

Richard Johnston
is a unique performer. Onstage, Johnston straps on his well-worn guitar, sits down behind a foot-operated drum, takes off his shoes and socks and proceeds to wail, blowing away audiences with his stellar finger-picking. Nominated this year for a prestigious W.C. Handy Award for “Best New Artist Debut,” Johnston champions the “Mississippi Hill Country” style of country blues. No newcomer to the music world, Johnston has been playing and learning his craft for almost 12 years, drawing influence from blues legends like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. With the release of Johnston’s self-produced debut, Foot Hill Stomp (FTRC), a powerful new talent has hit the national stage.

Foot Hill Stomp represents Johnston’s attempt to marry the hillbilly country sound of old Appalachia with Mississippi Hill Country tradition. Johnston succeeds beyond his wildest dreams, the best material on Foot Hill Stomp crackling with energy and enthusiasm while retaining the timeless country blues vibe. Using sparse instrumentation similar to his live performances – usually only a single guitar, foot drum and washboard – Johnston breathes new life into antique treasures like Rainey Burnette’s “Coal Black Mattie” or the Rev. Robert Wilkins’ “That’s No Way To Get Along.” Some friends from Mississippi help out on a few tracks, folks like Cedric Burnside, Robert “Nighthawk” Tooms and Jessie Mae Hemphill lending their talents to the young bluesman. An anachronism in the modern blues scene, Richard Johnston has delivered an encouraging debut in the decidedly low-tech Foot Hill Stomp.

Victory Records has a long and glorious history as an independent hardcore punk label. That said, there’s nothing to prepare a listener for the infectious pop hooks found on Kill Your Television (Victory) from the Reunion Show. Evidently the brains behind the brawn at Victory recognize quality when they hear it, and if punk purists dismiss the CD release as “selling out,” then so be it. Few indie labels can brag that they released something as fresh and exciting as Kill Your Television this year, and few young bands sound as mature and enthusiastic as the Reunion Show.

Vocalists Mark Thomas and Brian Diaz have a real chemistry, both leading songs or providing background harmonies. There’s also a punk undercurrent supporting tunes like “New Rock Revolution,” Derrick Sherman’s capable six-string work pushing the songs forward without ever overwhelming the melody. The Reunion Show reminds this scribe a lot of the Undertones, or perhaps the Scooters, glib young men with a talent for mixing ‘80s-styled new wave pop with classic guitar-driven rock & roll and managing to make it sound like something new. Along with Leisure McCorkle’s latest disc, Kill Your Television is the most invigorating collection of tunes to grace this critic’s stereo in a proverbial month o’ Sundays.

French Kicks, part of a thriving New York City music scene, are thrown in with garage rock fellow travelers like the Strokes or the White Stripes by lazy, looking-for-a-shortcut rock critics. The reality, much like the band’s recent debut album One Time Bells (Startime), is far more complex. Truth is, French Kicks doesn’t sound much like any of those guys, One Time Bells a multi-layered and textured collection of songs requiring more than a casual hearing to finally unravel. Starting with a post-punk musical framework, the band tacks on elements of British-influenced pop, discordant guitar riffs, subdued vocals and low-fi melodies. Singer Matt Stinchcomb’s fluid vocals are low-key, supported by sporadic harmonies while guitarist Josh Wise provides a steady drone beneath the lyrics.

Not anywhere near as riff-oriented as, say, the Strokes, French Kicks carefully craft each song on One Time Bells so that it slowly unfolds, the album growing more familiar and hypnotically enchanting with each play. It’s a good trick, One Time Bells sneaking up on you from behind, catching the unsuspecting listener with a scrap of guitar play, a memory of a lyric or a stretched-out rhythm. Another of 2002’s overlooked CD releases, One Time Bells provides a fine introduction to the talents of French Kicks, a band definitely worth keeping an eye on in the future.
Drowning Pool's Sinema
When Drowning Pool frontman Dave Williams died last August of an undiagnosed heart disease, the tragedy couldn’t have come at a worse time. The band had a high-profile spot on the annual Ozzfest tour and had been pushing its 2001 debut CD Sinner (Wind-Up Records) towards multi-platinum sales. Williams was a large part of that success, the spike-haired, pierced and tattooed vocalist anything but another hard rock pretty boy. The charismatic singer possessed a remarkable stage presence and a booming voice that was capable of more emotion and passion than your typical hard rock howler. Add guitarist C.J. Pierce, a masterful six-string shredder who drops molten riffs like the Air Force drops bombs and throw in a bass/drums rhythm section with nuclear blast capability and Drowning Pool had the chops, the look and the sound for a lengthy career.

The recently released Sinema (Wind-Up) does a fine job of outlining the band’s brief history. With over 2 ½ hours of content, the DVD includes all three of the band’s acclaimed music videos, powerful films with imaginative visuals and uncompromising metallic clamor. A collection of eight live “bootleg” videos, including a rave-up version of “Bodies” complete with raging mosh pit, showcases the band’s onstage talents. Behind the scenes video, band commentary and a handful of rare audio tracks round out Sinema. A solid documentary of the band, a portion of the proceeds from the DVD will go towards buying Williams’ parents a house, fulfilling the late rocker’s dream. (View From The Hill, January 2003)

Friday, November 3, 2023

Archive Review: The Fabulous Thunderbirds' Painted On (2005)

For nearly thirty years now the Fabulous Thunderbirds have reigned as the kings of blues-rock, becoming an institution in the genre. Although the line-up has changed a time or two – frontman Kim Wilson being the only constant – the T-Birds have managed to weather musical currents with a revolving door of great guitarists (Jimmie Vaughan, Duke Robillard, Kid Ramos) and Wilson’s distinctive, original and highly personal interpretation of the blues.

The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ Painted On

Painted On is both the band’s first studio album in eight years (ten if you dismiss the session-player dominated High Water) as well as the debut of new six-string tandem Nick Curran and Kirk Fletcher. Curran, known as a bit of a blues/rockabilly prodigy after stints with Kim Lenz and Ronnie Dawson, is a successful solo artist in his own right, and proves to be a good fit into the Thunderbirds’ sound. The other band members help provide a depth the Thunderbirds have not enjoyed since their mid-‘80s heyday. Fletcher, from Wilson’s solo band, is a quality musician of some subtlety, easily playing off Curran’s hellraising leads. Ronnie James Weber is a solid bassist and another veteran of Wilson’s solo work while drummer Jimi Bott is an in-demand sideman with over 60 entries on his session discography. Rounding out the sound is pianist Gene Taylor, with the longest tenure of any band member, drawing on experience earned as a member of Canned Heat and the Blasters.  

The resulting chemistry between Wilson and these bandmates is nothing short of astounding. Painted On showcases the band’s musical muscles as they flex their way through a dozen songs that run the gamut from heavy blooze-rock (“Hard Knock” and “Got To Get Out”) to Doug Sahm-inspired Tex-Mex (“Two Time Fool”). Along the way the Thunderbirds try their collective hand at honky-tonk country (“Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line”) and New Orleans-flavored R&B (“Feeling My Way Around”) with great results. The highest peaks reached by Painted On, however, are Wilson’s energetic duet with the Detroit Cobras’ Rachel Nagy on the soul rave-up “Love Speaks Louder Than Words” and on Curran’s original tune “You Torture Me,” a guitar-driven rocker that displays both Curran’s six-string prowess and Wilson’s legendary mouth harp work.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

For long-time fans of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Painted On represents a welcome return to form, easily the band’s best effort since Tuff Enuff twenty years ago as well as a creative high point in the T-Birds’ legendary career. The mix of new players has clearly re-energized Wilson, leading to as potent and powerful a collection of performances as has ever been featured under the Fabulous Thunderbirds name. (Tone-Cool Records/Artemis, 2005)

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

The View On Pop Culture: Marianne Faithful, Eric Andersen, 50 Cent (2002)

Marianne Faithful's Kissin Time

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

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

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

Eric Andersen's Beat Avenue
Virtually unknown outside of folk circles, Eric Andersen’s contributions to the genre have been overshadowed by contemporaries such as Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan. A fixture on the early-60s folk circuit, Andersen began his recording career with 1965’s Today Is the Highway (now sadly out-of-print). Sometime during the early ‘70s, Anderson’s pure folk sound expanded to include elements of Texas-styled country (think Townes Van Zandt) and folk-rock (Dylan and The Band). He has recorded sporadically throughout the past thirty years, taking up residence in Norway and writing songs when the muse strikes. For listeners unfamiliar with Andersen’s past, Beat Avenue (Appleseed Recordings) will sound like a revelation when marked against the current musical landscape.

Andersen assembled a top-notch band to record Beat Avenue, including guitarist Eric Bazilian (the Hooters) and bassist Mark Egan (Pat Metheny Band) as well as guests like singers Lucy Kaplansky and Phoebe Snow, and the Band’s multi-instrumental genius, Garth Hudson. The songs demand a lot of the players and they respond, filling Andersen’s lyrical poetry with powerful and passionate instrumentation. The apocalyptic “Ain’t No Time To Bleed,” a duet with Snow, is a hard-rocking, blues-drenched rumination on the fleeting nature of life. The bittersweet memory of love lost fuels “Salt On Your Skin,” Andersen’s mournful vocals underlined by fluid, whimsical instrumentation. The rollicking “Stupid Love” is wonderfully reckless, Andersen’s rambling vocals matched by Hudson’s piano flourishes and a funky, New Orleans flavor.

A second disc includes the twenty-six minute title track, a Beat-influenced tale of 24 hours in San Francisco on the day of the Kennedy assassination with stark instrumentation and a jazzy vibe. “Blue Rockin’ Chair” is a blues-tinged rocker, equal parts Delta soul and swamp rock gumbo, an ominous musical landscape where Andersen feels the black cat moan. Much of Beat Avenue is preoccupied with death and decay, an obsession tempered by a true romantic’s eternal hope. The 60-year-old Andersen is a classic folk lyricist, painting in both fine lines of brilliant imagery and in broad strokes of skillful storytelling, using a palette that includes emotion, compassion, and insight. Beat Avenue is, indeed, a revelation, Eric Andersen managing to fuse the innocence of folk music with the power of roots rock.

50 Cent's Get Rich Or Die Tryin’
As the hottest rapper to hit the charts since Eminem turned the hip-hop world on its head, 50 Cent (née Curtis Jackson) lives up to the hype. The New York City born and bred artist has come roaring out of the underground and entered the mainstream in a big way, his major label debut, Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ (Shady/Aftermath/Interscope Records), selling almost 900,000 copies in its first four days on the shelf. Signed as part of a joint effort by Eminem and legendary rap producer Dr. Dre, 50 Cent is a real-life “gangsta,” as unforgiving as the street and as dangerous as a wild animal.

Many music fans dismiss rap as mere studio gimmickry and nursery rhyme lyrics, but I defy anybody to listen to Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ and not hear the talent inherent in 50 Cent’s lyricism. The purpose of language is communication, and much like the blues did for Delta-born sharecroppers in the ‘20s and ‘30s, rap music communicates the reality experienced by African-Americans today. The crack-slinging, Glock-toting 50 Cent is as realistic as it comes, his tales of life in the streets and the clubs of the Big Apple every bit as stark as Artaud’s poetry or Bukowski’s drunken prose.

“Many Men (Wish Death)” reminds the listener that the reaper works the street corner while the hypnotic beats and chance conversations of “In Da Club” takes us on a whirlwind trip across an urban dancefloor. “Like My Style” is ghetto fabulous, a bit of sexual braggadocio while “Gotta Make It To Heaven” outlines the random violence that plagues the poor every day. 50 Cent has a keen lyrical eye for detail, larger-than-life charisma and a natural skill at spinning rhymes. Under Eminem’s steady guidance and Dre’s excellent production, Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ is a trip through the looking glass into a parallel America, a brutal reminder that all is not well in the land of the free. (View From The Hill, December 2002)