Friday, September 17, 2021

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

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

The Black Keys’ El Camino

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

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

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

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

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

Review originally published by Blues Revue magazine…

Buy the CD from The Black Keys’ El Camino


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

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

The Rolling Stones’ No Security

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

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

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 10, 2021

Archive Review: Black Sabbath's Reunion (1998)

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

Black Sabbath’s Reunion

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 3, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

# # #

Previously on That Devil

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

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

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

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

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

Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies

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

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

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

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

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

Friday, August 27, 2021

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

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

Justin Townes Earle’s The Good Life

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

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

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

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

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

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

Archive Review: Michelle Malone’s Homegrown (1999)

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

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

Michelle Malone’s Homegrown

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

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

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

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

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

Buy the CD from Michelle Malone’s Homegrown

Friday, August 20, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 1999

Buy the CD from The Bottle Rockets’ Brand New Year

Friday, August 13, 2021

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

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

Ani DiFranco & Utah Phillips’ Fellow Workers

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

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

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