Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Billy Thermal: “Billy Thermal” (2014) CD Review

Sometimes music can come at exactly the right time. I was totally stressed out about work, trying to create my first call sheet for a production, and decided to pop in the Billy Thermal disc. And it immediately made me feel better. A nice combination of rock, punk and pop, it got me feeling looser, happier, had me laughing, even dancing around as I continued to work.

It’s interesting that this disc came at just the right time for me, because this is an album that should have been released more than thirty years ago. Billy Thermal is a band that was formed in 1978 by Billy Steinberg (the man who would later co-write “Like A Virgin” and “True Colors”). This album was recorded in early 1980, but not released, and within a year the band had broken up.

All of the songs were written or co-written by Billy Steinberg. Five of these tracks were released on a record in 1982; the others remained unreleased until now. The CD includes three bonus tracks, all demos. Also, there are liner notes by Billy Steinberg.

“I Tell You My Dream”

The album opens with “I Tell You My Dream,” an excellent rock tune with a good steady beat. I was just talking with someone the other day about this – about how rock music was so much fun at this time. I love the sound and feel of this track, particularly the chorus. And those delicious ya-yas give it an excellent summer feel, and some tasty guitar licks make this one of those perfect rock songs. Plus, it has some cool lyrics, like “I thought I was a schizo/I thought I was romantic” and “I think I could remember but I’m a little sleepy yet/There was a German Shepherd/He had a rabbit in his teeth.”

Linda Ronstadt

Linda Ronstadt covered “How Do I Make You” on her 1980 album Mad Love and as a single, and had a hit with it. This too has a fun rock vibe, and is also related to dreams, one line being “How do I make you dream about me?” In the liner notes for this release, Billy Steinberg mentions that he was seeing an analyst at the time, so perhaps that is why dreams were on his mind.

I really dig “Control.” It has a bit of a bouncy feel to it that is catchy, particularly on the chorus. And it has lyrics we can all relate to: “I lost control/You lost control.” I also like the line, “You had chemistry on your side.”

Pat Benatar

“Precious Time” is one that was covered by Pat Benatar. In fact, she used it as the title track for her 1981 release. This original version is actually a bit shorter than Pat Benatar’s rendition, not having that wild lead guitar section and the long ending. This song has a darker feel in the verses, with lyrics that fit the tone, opening with these lines: “I don’t want to argue about who was the victim/’Cause maybe we both got burned/I don’t want to talk about who was the traitor/’Cause both of our loyalties turned.” But the lines “I don’t want to hear about who was the winner/’Cause we both know it’s a tie” strike me as funny, and the chorus has a brighter pop feel, with a positive seize-the-day message.

“I’m Gonna Follow You” was also recorded by Pat Benatar, and included on her excellent 1980 LP, Crimes Of Passion. This is the one song on the album that Billy co-wrote, Ralph McCarthy being his collaborator on this track (though he wasn’t credited on the Pat Benatar record). This is such a cool tune. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “I’m gonna follow you ‘til I wear you down/I’m gonna follow you ‘cause this here’s my town/You don’t know these streets the way that I do/You can’t turn it on and off the way that I do.” It was included on a 1980 compilation titled Sharp Cuts – New Music From American Bands.

“I’m Your Baby”

“I’m Your Baby” is one of my favorites. It’s totally fucking delightful, and that “Ooh” makes me smile every time. I really love the lyrics, with some lines standing out as humorous, such as “I would like to help you lose control” and “When you kiss me, your ruby lips leave a stain.”

“They Didn’t See It” is such a strange pop song, with lyrics that make me laugh out loud, like “The child was sweet just like Narcissus/There was a budding psychosis/But the parents’ eyes were out of focus.”

Bonus Tracks

The CD contains three bonus tracks. The first, “Don’t Look At Me,” was covered by Rick Nelson (though in that version Rick sings, “Don’t look at me with those sad eyes”). It’s a seriously good rock song in which a man tries to get his girl to stop being jealous, to stop accusing him. “You got the whole world to fight with/You shouldn't fight with me.” And I love at the beginning how he sings, “I don’t care who said so,” then immediately asks, “Who said so? Spit it out.” Wonderful.

“Chez Metz” has a good vibe with a bit of a reggae thing happening (I like that work on bass), then mixed with a rock and roll drive. “I don’t know where everybody is now/Selling insurance or under the influence/We fell out of touch, it don’t matter that much.”

The CD’s final track, “Fa Fa Feelings,” is a bit goofy, but kind of catchy. And I like the line, “Too many buttons, baby, on your dress.”

CD Track List

  1. I Tell You My Dream
  2. How Do I Make You
  3. Control
  4. The Price I Pay
  5. Precious Time
  6. I’m Your Baby
  7. They Didn’t See It
  8. I Need You
  9. I’m Gonna Follow You
  10. Julie
  11. Mirror Man
  12. No Connection
  13. Don’t Look At Me (demo)
  14. Chez Metz (demo)
  15. Fa Fa Feelings (demo) 

Billy Thermal is Billy Steinberg on lead vocals, Craig Hull on guitar, Bob Carlisle on bass and backing vocals, and Efren Espinosa on drums and backing vocals.

Billy Thermal was released on August 12, 2014 through Omnivore Recordings.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Soul Of Designer Records (2014) Box Set Review

The Soul Of Designer Records is a four-disc box set containing nearly five hours of gospel music from the 1960s and 1970s. You don’t have to be religious to enjoy this set. There is a lot of great music contained on these discs, music that is impossible to dislike regardless of your personal philosophy and spirituality. There is a lot of passion in these recordings. These singles are, of course, dominated by some phenomenal vocals, but it’s the artists’ obvious love of music that really makes these tracks shine.

Interestingly, the artists and groups on these discs paid to record their singles, sometimes on an installment plan. It’s a bit surprising to me just how great these tracks are, considering how they came about. You’d think that bands that had to pay to record their material might not be so hot. But these tracks (with just a few exceptions) are seriously good. And the box set includes just over one hundred songs.

The packaging is like that of a double LP. The liner notes booklet is the size of a record, and includes some information on the artists and on the folks behind the label. There are also several photos. I only wish the liner notes included the original release dates for these records.

Gospel Songbirds

This collection begins with a couple of tracks by the Gospel Songbirds. The first, “Tone The Bells Easy,” features some cool guitar (the opening lick makes it seems like this will be a rock and roll tune) and amazing vocals. How can you go wrong? The energy, the power, the passion are quite moving. And I love when that slow soul groove comes in (more than a minute into the song), and the way the vocals rise above it, like the song is both grounded and reaching great heights simultaneously. This is such a great track to open this collection.

Dynamic Hughes Gospel Singers

“Viet Nam” is a really good soul song tackling that giant 1960s political subject. “I’ve just arrived in Viet Nam/Lord, let me survive/Now, here I am.” The song also mentions segregation. There is some simple, but very effective work on organ.

Twilight Singers

“Tone The Bells,” from Twilight Singers, is a slow, glorious, mesmerizing track, and is one of the highlights for me. The flip side, “Climbing High Mountains,” is a more fun, catchy song, and another excellent track. “I’m climbing high mountains, trying to get home.”

Sensational Family Singers

“I’ll Go” is a rockin’ number by Sensational Family Singers, featuring Gilford Evans, with the lead vocals ripping and tearing. I can’t imagine he could keep singing like that for very long, but it’s wild to hear. “Listen to this,” he sings before delivering something between a scream and a sort of pleasant growl.

The Shaw Singers

“After Awhile,” by The Shaw Singers, is such an interesting track, combining gospel and country, with pedal steel as a prominent element. I really like this one a lot. “God Has Done So Much For Me” is wonderful gospel song, dominated by vocals and piano. It’s a song of rejoicing and praise, with lines like “When I was a stranger/You know, the Lord he turned me about/He’ll be a mother and a father too/He’ll do things no one else can do” and “Change my midnight into day.”

This collection also includes The Shaw Singers’ “Since He Touched Me.” I couldn’t help but take the song’s first line, “Yes, I’ve got a new way of walking since he touched me,” in a different way from what the group intended. That being said, this is a really nice track. But then I laughed again when I heard them sing, “I’ve got a brand new home since he touched me.” Clearly, the court settlement was significant.

Soul Superiors Of Detroit, MI

I love the sound of Soul Superiors’ “Whatever You Do, Do Good,” a gorgeous, relaxed soul track with some wonderful (and surprising) changes in the vocals, in the way the song is delivered. This is an all-round wonderful track, one of the collection’s highlights.

And the second track by this group, “A Great Day,” has a fantastic joy that will transfer to you as you listen. It has shades of Little Richard.

Alberta Powell

Alberta Powell delivers two excellent blues-gospel tracks, with some wonderful work on guitar and smooth backing vocals. I believe Alberta when she sings in “Trusted,” “Lord, I’ll make it somehow/Yes, I’ll make it somehow.” Of the two tracks, I prefer “Trusted” (it is one of the collection’s highlights), but “The Same God” is also really good.

The Jubilee Hummingbirds

One of my favorite groups to be featured in this collection is The Jubilee Hummingbirds. Their first track, “Stand By Me,” has such a cool sound (almost like garage gospel at times), with some excellent vocal work. I love it. The flip side, “Something Within Me,” has a happier, excited feel, with the humorous line, “I met Jesus one Thursday” near the end.

“I Won’t Have To Cry No More” has such a good groove, and the backing vocalists’ repetition of the title line is wonderful. The lead singer refers to the others (and perhaps the listeners) as “church,” like in the line, “Did you hear me, church?

The rock groove of “A Sinner’s Plea” actually reminds me of very early Grateful Dead. Yeah, it’s great, and comes at you with full force. If church had sounded like this when I was a kid, I must have stuck with it. Who knows?

The Breckenridge Singers

The Breckenridge deliver a delicious dose of blues in “God Is Ruler From Above,” a tune with more fantastic vocals. “Aren’t you glad?” Oh yes.

The Fantastic Alphonzo Thomas

That one is followed by another excellent track, this one by The Fantastic Alphonzo Thomas. “I’m On My Way” is a lot of fun, with some nice work on piano. “I had a mighty hard time, Lord/But I’m on my way.” This is one of my favorites. I just wish it were a bit longer, as it seems to fade out too soon.

O’Neal And The Dean Brothers

O’Neal And The Dean Brothers provide another of this set’s highlights with “I Am Going Home,” a seriously good R&B track. “The ABC’s” is a bit silly as it goes through the entire alphabet to describe Jesus: “J, his name is Jesus/K, he is king of them all/L, he is a mighty good leader.”

“Don’t Give Up” is an interesting rock tune, playing on a simple groove. It might feel repetitive, but I got into that groove. Much better is their “It’s Your Life,” with nice vocals and some good work on both guitar and organ. “It’s your life/Live it like you want to/Ain’t nobody gonna tell you what to do.” This is one of my favorite tracks of this set.

Traveling Stars

“Beautiful Mansion” is a good little rock and soul tune in the same realm as some of James Brown’s work. It’s a fun track, even if it’s a bit repetitive. And I dig that bass line.

Golden Travelers

“Too Close To Turn Around” is such a fantastic track, with excellent, emotional, passionate vocals, and a slow, powerful groove. This track from Golden Travelers is one of the highlights of this set, just one hell of a great song.

George Shields And His Gospel Singers

“God’s Word Will Never Pass Away” by George Shields And His Gospel Singers is another track that stands out for me, with its back porch blues feel and those glorious vocals over that great guitar. They keep it simple, keep it honest, and it works so well.

The Southland Singers

The Southland Singers’ “When The Gates Open” is another absolutely wonderful track. The backing vocals are excellent, the bass is perfect, the groove gets me smiling. This is a phenomenal tune.

Joe Townsend

Joe Townsend provides some classic blues, with a couple of recordings that sound decades older than they are. Here is a guy in complete command of the music, with an honesty and authenticity. There is a small crowd, like these songs were recorded in a tavern somewhere, or in someone’s home for the best private show ever. “You know I don’t want to stop,” he sings in “Going Over The Hill.”

The Original Golden Stars

Things get kind of funky with The Original Golden Stars’ “Nobody’s Fault But Mine," a fun track that is some strange combination of funk, gospel and garage. And it rocks. “At The Red Sea” is a slower track, but just as cool and striking. It’s one that grabs me right away.

The Wandering Five

The Wandering Five do a cool rendition of “I’ll Fly Away,” with a slow, bluesy groove, and with backing vocalists repeating “Oh, oh yeah.”

As for the track list, since there are more than a hundred tracks, I’ve decided to take a photo of the back of the box rather than type out all the songs.

The Soul Of Designer Records is scheduled to be released on September 30, 2014 through Big Legal Mess Records.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Jesse Winchester: “A Reasonable Amount Of Trouble” (2014) CD Review

A Reasonable Amount Of Trouble is the final studio album by Jesse Winchester, who died in April of this year, from cancer. This CD is a group of songs he wrote while going through cancer treatment. But don’t worry, this isn’t a depressing album. It’s devoid of self-pity. In fact, there is joy here, and comfort, even humor. There are some really good songs here, and lyrics that stand out. For example, in “Ghosts,” I really like the line, “Oh, but I wish these ghosts would die.” Most of the tracks are original songs; there are just a few covers, some wonderful oldies.

Jesse Winchester is joined by some excellent musicians on this album. The band includes bass player Roscoe Beck, whom Leonard Cohen fans know well from his work with that singer/songwriter, and Jerry Douglas, who has played with… well, just about everybody. And the CD includes liner notes by both Jimmy Buffett and Mac McAnally.

“All That We Have Is Now”

The album opens with “All That We Have Is Now,” a song that delivers a great dose of old-time good vibes, a song that is full of joy. It’s a tune with a strong feeling of nostalgia, but without that sadness that often accompanies it. And I love the way the older style is used in combination with the line “All that we have is now.” This is a completely delightful song. “We must do this again sometime/But I can’t tell you when/But what a joy it’s been.”

Jesse Winchester follows that with a bluesy rock number, “She Makes It Easy Now,” a tune with some nice work on guitar. Jerry Douglas plays lap steel on this track. There is also a sense of humor to this song, with lines like “Two time loser, better watch your step/Because maybe marriage is out of your depth.”

“Neither Here Nor There”

“Neither Here Nor There” is a sweet, mellow song, and for me, is one of the best tracks of the album. “If I just made the whole thing up/I admit I’d had a cup/The part where I loved someone else/When I could only love myself/Let’s have a drink, let’s have a song.”

Another gem on this album is “A Little Louisiana,” a song which provides some damn good advice: “Take a little Louisiana with you everywhere you go.” And this: “So get your lovin’ while you can/It’s always good to have on hand.” This one is a fun bit of Cajun folk, and it features Stuart Duncan on fiddle and Joel Guzman on accordion.

“Never Forget To Boogie”

“Never Forget To Boogie” is a playful, humorous song about being forgetful. Is it due to age, or is it a life-long characteristic? Well, it doesn’t matter, because, as the title suggests, he doesn’t forget to boogie, and that’s all that’s important. It’s sung in a kind of sweet way. “Going to see my baby, and I’m always late/Things in my icebox are way past their date… I’ve got to get on top of all this stuff/And it can’t be soon enough.” Joel Guzman plays accordion on this track. Jerry Douglas adds some wonderful touches on lap steel. And near the end, the song does stray a bit toward KC And The Sunshine Band territory, and totally works.

“Don’t Be Shy”

“Don’t Be Shy” is a fun, quirky love song that finds him fishing for compliments: “Now you may be thinking how I’m something else/For goodness sake, don’t keep it to yourself/And maybe you admire my wavy hair/Well, don’t you think that’s something you should share/Do you find me peachy keen/Are my eyes the nicest eyes you’ve ever seen?” You can’t help but love it. Plus, I love Roscoe Beck’s playful bass line on this track.

Covers include “Rhythm Of The Rain”

Jesse Winchester makes some interesting choices for the covers he does on this album. The first is “Rhythm Of The Rain,” written by John Gummoe and originally done by The Cascades. Jesse’s version is sweet and smooth. He definitely gives the song a new life. And the line “Pitter patter, pitter patter” always seemed cute to me.

He also delivers a loving rendition of “Devil Or Angel” that is wonderful. Jim Horn provides a nice lead on saxophone. This song was written by Blanche Carter, and originally recorded by The Clovers, and also by Bobby Vee.

For the final cover of the CD, he tackles another delightful oldie, “Whispering Bells,” written by Clarence E. Quick and Fred Lowry, and recorded by The Del Vikings. This track also features Jim Horn on saxophone. There are also some wonderful backing vocals.

CD Track List

  1. All That We Have Is Now
  2. She Makes It Easy Now
  3. Neither Here Nor There
  4. Rhythm Of The Rain
  5. A Little Louisiana
  6. Ghosts
  7. Never Forget To Boogie
  8. Devil Or Angel
  9. Don’t Be Shy
  10. Every Day I Get The Blues
  11. Whispering Bells
  12. Just So Much


Musicians appearing on this album include Jesse Winchester on vocals, acoustic guitar and keyboard; Mac McAnally on electric guitar, acoustic guitar, mandola, keyboards and backing vocals; Roscoe Beck on electric bass and upright bass; Eric Darken on percussion; Lenny LeBlanc on backing vocals; Jerry Douglas on lap steel guitar; Joel Guzman on accordion, Stuart Duncan on fiddle; and Jim Horn on saxophone.

A Reasonable Amount Of Trouble is scheduled to be released on September 16, 2014 through Appleseed Recordings.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Steven Casper & Cowboy Angst: “Endless Sky” (2014) CD Review

Whenever I see John McDuffie’s name attached to a project, I get excited. There is something wonderful about his masterful, yet unostentatious playing, and his presence always adds a good deal to any musical endeavor. So I was anxious to hear Endless Sky, the new EP from Steven Casper And Cowboy Angst, for McDuffie plays slide guitar and pedal steel on it. Endless Sky is a really good collection of five songs, all written by Steven Casper, and featuring guest appearances by Charity McCrary and Linda McCrary Fisher, as well as by Ross “Big Daddy” Levinson.

Endless Sky opens with its title track, a wonderful song blending folk, country and pop elements. I love Steven Casper’s voice, and this song has a sort of relaxed, positive vibe. And I really like these lines: “Well, I like these folks, I like them fine/But I’ve always felt like I’m doing time.”

“Rattlesnake Road” has a cool, meaner bluesy vibe that is absolutely excellent. Steven Casper sings, “I need protection/That much I know/Because there is something evil/Down Rattlesnake Road.” I really dig the piano on this track. And the band is joined by Charity McCrary and Linda McCrary Fisher on backing vocals.

“In The Quiet Hours” is a slower tune, with a powerful beauty at moments. Something in the music calls to mind some early 1960s pop and rock. This line grabs me each time I listen to it: “In the quiet hours, I always reach, reach back for you.” There is some nice work by Carl Byron on organ.

The McCrarys join the group again on “River,” which opens with a pretty instrumental section. This song features an impressive vocal performance by Steven Casper. There is yearning and experience in his voice. This song really grabbed me. “Floating in the river/Safely wrapped in its cool embrace/Flow, river, flow/Take me far from this place.”  (At moments, this song reminds me just a bit of Life Of Riley, Riley Smith’s band.) John McDuffie’s work is just perfect. The song then concludes by returning to the opening instrumental part before fading out.

The EP ends with its biggest surprise, “The Last Dance Of The Year,” a delightful instrumental track dominated by accordion, with something of a New Orleans flavor. I absolutely love it. I think part of it is that I was taught how to waltz by a beautiful girl in the parking lot of a Dunkin' Donuts when I was a teenager, and that sound often takes me back to that happy and innocent time and frame of mind. Ross "Big Daddy" Levinson plays violin on this track, an excellent addition.

CD Track List

  1. Endless Sky
  2. Rattlesnake Road
  3. In The Quiet Hours
  4. River
  5. The Last Dance Of The Year 


Steven Casper & Cowboy Angst are Steven Casper on lead vocals and guitar; John Groover McDuffie on lead guitar, slide guitar, pedal steel and lap steel; Herb Deitelbaum on bass and backing vocals; Jay Nowac on drums; and Carl Byron on piano, accordion and Hammond B3 organ. Ira Ingber provides some additional work on guitar, percussion, and backing vocals. Ingber also produced the CD.

Endless Sky is scheduled to be released on Silent City Records on August 15, 2014 in Europe, and on September 23, 2014 in the United States.

Ruthie Foster: “Promise Of A Brand New Day” (2014) CD Review

I love Ruthie Foster’s voice. I could listen to her sing just about anything. Her new CD, Promise Of A Brand New Day, features a mix of original material and covers. While her previous album, 2012’s Let It Burn, featured some stunning covers (I still can’t get over that sexy version of “If I Had A Hammer”), for me this new one is really about the original material. The songs she wrote are, in general, the strongest tracks of the album.

“Singing The Blues”

Ruthie Foster kicks off her new CD with “Singing The Blues,” a mix of blues and pop, with a very positive feel and groove. The opening lines are: “Trying to find a new home/Trying to write a new song/Trying to find a rhythm.” This song is about the blues, about singing them for a crowd, then singing them to yourself alone afterwards, and maybe feeling them in a more intense and personal way then. “Well, you know I’m just passing on/Singing the same old songs/Sometimes it feels so right and I don’t feel all alone/But when the music fades and the crowd drives away/I’m staring at the mirror/Yeah, I’m still singing the blues.” The lyrics also mention Bobby Blue Bland. “Singing The Blues” was written by Ruthie Foster.

Doyle Bramhall II

I love the great bluesy soul opening to “Let Me Know,” with some delicious vocal work. It is so good. The song then kicks in with a solid blues-rock groove. Ruthie Foster is joined on this track by Doyle Bramhall II, who provides some excellent work on guitar. (He has played with such folks as Eric Clapton, Elton John and Sheryl Crow.) Ruthie sings, “I’ve gotta know if you’re gonna let me go.” Not an unreasonable demand. And any demands this woman makes should be seen to straight away. “Let Me Know” was written by Ruthie Foster.

“My Kinda Lover”

There is a nice, loose, kind of happy feel to “My Kinda Lover.” You can almost hear the smiles on the musicians’ faces in their playing. It has a sort of classic R&B groove. This one was also written by Ruthie Foster. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “You want to be my kinda lover, yeah/And never ever have to roam/Never more will there be fussing and fighting/Never more will you feel all alone/If you were mine, all mine, all mine.”

“The Ghetto”

Ruthie Foster does an excellent cover of “The Ghetto,” a song written by Bettye Crutcher, Homer Banks and Bonnie Bramlett, and recorded by The Staples Singers. Ruthie Foster’s rendition has a gorgeous gospel sound, particularly in the vocals. This is an impressive performance, full of passion.

“Learning To Fly”

“Learning To Fly” is one of my favorite tracks. Ruthie Foster’s vocals and Jebin Bruni’s work on piano are such a moving combination. There is something glorious and gorgeous and yet also grounded in the sound.  The lyrics include uplifting lines like, “And when you soar, love means so much more/And in time you’ll be fine” and “There’s a song in your ear you can’t stop singing.” “Learning To Fly” was written by Ruthie Foster.

There are more great gospel vibes in the title track, “Brand New Day,” with lyrics delivered a cappella (well, to the accompaniment of a tambourine). This wonderful track was written by Ruthie Foster.

“Complicated Love”

“Complicated Love,” also written by Ruthie Foster, is more in the folk realm. It has a sadly sweet sound that gets right to me. And I really love the lyrics to this one: “I wish I knew what to do/How to find the right words to take the blame off my heart/I don’t know where to start/You’ve got a double-edged sword on your tongue/I can’t win, I can’t run, I can’t drop down my guard/Do I wait/Do I say I’ve had enough.”

Promise Of A Brand New Day ends with “New,” a song written by Toshi Reagon, who also performs on this track, providing vocals. This is a beautiful, mellow song, and its title then makes me think back to the first lines of the album’s opening track, as well as to the title track.

CD Track List

  1. Singing The Blues
  2. Let Me Know
  3. My Kinda Lover
  4. The Ghetto
  5. Outlaw
  6. Second Coming
  7. It Might Not Be Right
  8. Learning To Fly
  9. Believe
  10. Brand New Day
  11. Complicated Love
  12. New


The musicians featured on this album are Ruthie Foster on vocals, Meshell Ndegeocello on bass, Chris Bruce on guitar, Ivan Edwards on drums, Jebin Bruni on keys, and Nayanna Holley on backing vocals. Meshell Ndegeocello produced this album.

Promise Of A Brand New Day is scheduled to be released on August 19, 2014 through Blue Corn Music.