Monday, October 14, 2019

Bombadil: “Beautiful Country” (2019) CD Review

A new release from Bombadil is always a cause for celebration and excitement. This North Carolina-based trio has consistently put out excellent albums, each one among my favorites of the year it was released. So my expectations were high when I received Beautiful Country, the group’s new album. I stopped everything I was doing and popped the disc in, lying down and closing my eyes to focus on the music. How often do we feel compelled to do that? Well, this music deserves that kind of attention. It is a fantastic album. Bombadil features some of the best vocals of any group going these days, and these guys construct engaging and wonderful songs. The band is made up of Daniel Michalak, James Phillips and Stacy Harden. The new album features all original material, the music coming from that appealing land in the middle of folk, country and pop.

The album opens with “Oh Suzanne,” and as you might expect from that title, there is a strong folk element to this one. I love the way it builds to the chorus (the vocal approach to the chorus reminds me a bit of The Proclaimers). “Oh Suzanne/I love you/More than you know.” Check out the song’s opening lines: “Sometimes a man tells you he loves you/And maybe he does/But there are things in this life/That you cannot control.” And toward the end, there is a nod to “Oh! Susanna.” That’s followed by “Pillows And Prine,” a song title that I adore. This song is ridiculously catchy, and is one of my personal favorites (though, honestly, there is not a single weak track on this disc). “I see it one way/And you see another.”  Seriously, this song is a delight. It creates a vivid image of a relationship that John Prine could easily embrace and laugh and cry about. “That’s why we put space between our pillows at night/I know how to make her cry like a movie at its peak/I know how to make her crack in my sleep.” Interestingly, the next song, “Goodwill Socks,” opens with the lines “I saw you like I always saw you/And you saw me like you always saw me.” There is something catchy about this one too, with pop elements, including hand claps and a brief moment with just the beat. “Taking, taking the easy way out with you/Making, making the same mistakes we always do.”

As I mentioned, their vocal work is extraordinary and beautiful, and the sound of their music makes me feel so damn good. There is some humor to their songs as well, and in “Wisconsin Wedding” the line “To marry a Minnesota somebody” makes me laugh. Ah, is it any wonder this guy is getting cold feet, having second thoughts? “You can rattle the door/I’m on the floor with my eyes closed.” That’s followed by “Faces,” which begins with some pretty work on keys. “Put on the same clothes/And put on the same faces/Write the same name/With all the right spaces.” Then “The Man Who Loves You” has a bright pop sound. Another of my favorites is “On A Seashore,” a strange and delightful song coming to us from a distant realm. This one builds slowly and wonderfully, overtaking us, surrounding us, until its breath is ours. “Lovers on a park bench/Make me happy/Lovers on a seashore/Holding hands/Lovers getting married/Facing death together.” Kate Rhudy joins them on vocals on this song.

“Feather Thief” has a pleasant, relaxed vibe and some interesting work on percussion. That’s followed by “Girl With A Kite,” a pretty and sweet-sounding instrumental track that begins slowly and then picks up speed as it goes, rushing along at the end as if the wind has picked up and is carrying us all off into the bright sunshine. This is the album’s only instrumental. Then we get “Beautiful Country,” the album’s title track. This one has a sweet sound. “Oh, I fell in love with this beautiful damn country.” This release concludes with “The Real Thing,” a beautiful and intimate folk song that features Kate Rhudy joining them on vocals.  I want the real thing/I want the storm clouds/I want the rain upon my face.”

CD Track List
  1. Oh Suzanne
  2. Pillows And Prine
  3. Goodwill Socks
  4. Wisconsin Wedding
  5. Faces
  6. The Man Who Loves You
  7. On A Seashore
  8. Feather Thief
  9. Girl With A Kite
  10. Beautiful Country
  11. The Real Thing 
Beautiful Country was released on September 20, 2019 on Ramseur Records. It is available on both CD and vinyl (I need to pick up a copy of this exceptional album on vinyl the next time these guys come through town). And for those of you who might not be familiar with this group’s previous work, I’ve posted reviews of 2009’s Tarpits And Canyonlands (which was re-released in 2014), 2013’s Metrics Of Affection, 2015’s Hold On, and 2017’s Fences.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Dave Stryker: Eight Track Christmas

Five years ago guitarist Dave Stryker released an album titled Eight Track. It was a celebration of music from the 1970s, a time when folks had 8-track players (I remember them being a standard part of a stereo system, though my family stuck with records and cassettes). It was a good idea and a fun album, and was soon followed by Eight Track II and then Eight Track III.  That last one came out only a few months ago, and it is now being followed by Eight Track Christmas. And yeah, it is still early to be thinking about Christmas (and damn any store that puts its Christmas display out before Halloween), but the holiday will be here before we know it, and there’s not a thing we can do to stop it. Joining Dave Stryker on this release are Stefon Harris on vibraphone, Jared Gold on organ, and McClenty Hunter on drums and percussion. Dave Stryker does the arrangements.

Eight Track Christmas opens with a song titled “This Christmas,” a holiday tune I had forgotten about. It was originally released in 1970 by Donny Hathaway, and has been covered several times since then. This version has a bit of funk to its groove, which I appreciate. I particularly like Dave Stryker’s work on guitar. That’s followed by “What Child Is This?” This one becomes a surprisingly cool jam, something I wasn’t expecting from this song. It gets good and loose at moments, due in large part to McClenty Hunter’s excellent work on drums. I love his playing here. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is also a song I would not expect to be anything spectacular, but Dave Stryker somehow makes this song sound cool, giving it a decent groove.

“Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” is one of the first Christmas songs that I really liked when I was growing up. I appreciated the message, particularly as I was getting into my teens. And, yes, I was a big John Lennon fan (still am). This is a fairly mellow rendition, and is kind of pretty at moments, especially when Dave Stryker takes his lead on guitar halfway through. “Soulful Frosty” is a fun version of “Frosty The Snowman.” Now before you think I’ve lost my mind, let me say that what makes it fun is that it is combined with “Soulful Strut.” That’s the part that’s fun, for we all know that “Frosty The Snowman” is a rather stupid song (though not nearly as bad as “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer”). Far and away the best Christmas television special is A Charlie Brown Christmas, and a large part of that show’s appeal is Vince Guaraldi’s music. On this album, Dave Stryker delivers a sweet, cool rendition of “Christmastime Is Here,” this too having a good dash of soul. The organ is at the heart of this track, with Jared Gold delivering some wonderful stuff. I also really like the work on vibes on this one.

“Sleigh Ride” is one of those goofy, cheery holiday tunes that you hear in every department store toward the end of the year. This year, I hope the stores get copies of this album so they can play this fun rendition. Once you get past that familiar main line of the song, this version goes into some rather exciting territory, moving at a good clip and featuring lots of impressive work on guitar. And then there is a drum solo, so, yeah, I’m digging this rendition. That’s followed by a nice version of “Blue Christmas,” which has an easygoing vibe. Then “We Three Kings” becomes a decent jam. I particularly like the way it builds beneath the vibes during that lead section in the second half of the track. Also, early in the track, there is a brief nod to “Ode To Joy.” The disc concludes with a bright, groovy rendition of “O Tannenbaum.” This version pops and moves, and is quite enjoyable.

CD Track List
  1. This Christmas
  2. What Child Is This?
  3. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
  4. Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
  5. Soulful Frosty
  6. Christmastime Is Here
  7. Sleigh Ride
  8. Blue Christmas
  9. We Three Kings
  10. O Tannenbaum
Eight Track Christmas is scheduled to be released on CD on November 1, 2019. Apparently, it was released digitally earlier.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Wentus Blues Band with Duke Robillard: “Too Much Mustard!” (2019) CD Review

Hey, we all know the blues are not limited to the United States, but it is still surprising to me that Wentus Blues Band is based in Finland. If you’d said they were from Chicago, I’d say sure. If you told me they were from somewhere down south, I’d say okay. But the blues are universal, and this band delivers some great tunes on their new album, Too Much Mustard! This album is a joint effort with guitarist Duke Robillard, who is based here in the U.S. You probably know him from his work with Roomful Of Blues and The Fabulous Thunderbirds, but he also has a solid solo career. This album features a good mix of covers and original material, some composed by members of Wentus Blues Band and some by Duke Robillard. The Wentus Blues Band is made up of Juho Kinaret on vocals and percussion, Robban Hagnäs on bass, Niko Riippa on electric guitar, Daniel Hjerppe on drums and percussion, and Pekka Gröhn on keys. By the way, Duke Robillard offers his personal thoughts about the band in the disc’s liner notes.

The album gets off to a hopping start with a cover of The Holmes Brothers’ “Stayed At The Party.” This song itself sounds like a party, though its opening line is “Well, I stayed at the party a little too long.” If this is a song of regret, then regret never sounded so good. Check out that work on keys! The band then changes gears with a cover of Tom Waits’ “2:19,” which has a cool bluesy groove. The vocals have something of that raw, rough quality that Tom Waits possesses. I dig that lead on guitar, and then there is another nice lead on keys. They follow that with Robert Johnson’s “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day,” here titled simply “Judgement Day.” This a fun rendition, with a full, rowdy sound and a good, mean groove. These guys pick some excellent material to cover. The best songwriter who ever existed is of course Leonard Cohen, and I am always excited to hear folks cover his material. The song that Wentus Blues Band performs here is “First We Take Manhattan,” from his 1988 album, I’m Your Man. Wentus Blues Band and Duke Robillard offer an interesting rendition of this one, adding some blues guitar, as you might expect, but also giving it a somewhat lighter, more relaxed vibe than the original.

We then get into the original material, beginning with “She’s A Killer Hot Blonde,” a rocking, jumping song about a woman who loves the blues. “She’ll make you dance to the rhythm, holler and scream/She will make you see how she fulfills her dreams.” It was written by Robert Hagnäs. And if you’re looking for something with that delicious classic blues sound, these guys offer “Right In Your Arms,” another original tune. There is a whole lot of great playing on this track. This one should succeed at making you feel good. It is certainly working for me. “I’ve found what I’ve been searching for/Because the place I love the best is wherever you are/Right in your arms/That’s right, baby.” Indeed! That’s followed by “Too Much Mustard,” the album’s title track, which is another seriously enjoyable and lively number, with a bit of a classic rock and roll vibe. This is a tune to get you on that dance floor and is guaranteed to put a smile on your face (especially during those brief vocal parts). Swing your partner around and realize that life is pretty damn good. Yeah, this is one of my favorite tracks. It was written by Duke Robillard, Robert Hagnäs and Niko Riippa

The band delivers a good rendition of “I Hear You Knockin’,” a fun track about leaving and not coming back. “I hear you knocking/I hear you calling/I hear you every time you say my name.” It features another good groove and more great stuff on guitar. “You Got My Love” is an original song, one that quickly establishes a good groove and maintains it, something to keep your body moving. Yeah, this disc features a lot of fun material, including a rousing cover of Chuck Willis’ “I Feel So Bad,” here titled “Feels So Bad.”  I tell you I feel so bad/I feel like a ball game on a rainy day/Since I lost my baby/I shake my head and I walk away.” That’s followed by “Where Have All The Songbirds Gone,” which has a sweeter, prettier sound with some nice vocal work. You might just float along on this appealing sound, but pay attention to the lyrics. Lines like “You’ve got to tell me, tell me why/There’s no help from the sky” and “Look, all the leaves turning rotten/Soon we are gonna hit bottom” stand out. The disc then concludes with “Passionate Kiss,” a song written by Duke Robillard, and one he recorded himself earlier, including it on The Duke Robillard Band album Turn It Around. This new version features some nice stuff on keys, and has a more delicate, moving sound at the beginning, then builds from there.

CD Track List
  1. Stayed At The Party
  2. 2:19
  3. Judgement Day
  4. First We Take Manhattan
  5. She’s A Killer Hot Blonde
  6. Right In Your Arms
  7. Too Much Mustard
  8. She Made My Mind
  9. I Hear You Knockin’
  10. Miranda
  11. You Got My Love
  12. Selma
  13. Feels So Bad
  14. Where Have All The Songbirds Gone
  15. Passionate Kiss 
Too Much Mustard! was released on September 13, 2019.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Fleur Seule: “Standards And Sweet Things” (2019) CD Review

Fleur Seule is a jazz group based in New York that is led by a strong female vocalist straight out of the 1940s. This group specializes in music from that period, making the music sound as fresh as it was the day it was first performed, basically transporting us out of our current time. And the music they choose to cover comes from several different countries. Lead singer Allyson Briggs speaks multiple languages, and seems at ease singing in any one of several languages, not only transporting us to a different time, but to different places as well. Allyson Briggs, in addition to singing in this group, works as a voiceover artist, and clearly has perfect control over her voice. The band is incredibly talented as well, and features Jason Yeager on piano, Richard E. Miller on guitar, Michael O’Brien on bass, Paul Francis on drums, Ivan Llanes on percussion, and Andy Warren on trumpet. Backing vocalists Martina DaSilva, Vanessa Perea and Marg Davis perform on certain tracks. Their new album, Standards And Sweet Things, features exactly what its title promises. Listening to this music, our current cares and woes and fears seem to vanish. What more could we ask for?

The album opens with an absolutely delightful and cheerful rendition of “Taking A Chance On Love,” a song written by Vernon Duke, John Latouche and Ted Fetter for the musical Cabin In The Sky. This version swings and features some nice work on piano. Allyson Briggs’ vocals have that wonderful classic sound and style, and she even delivers some bright scat halfway through the track. It’s a wonderful way to get the album going. The band then turns to a Latin rhythm for a cover of “Piel Canela,” probably the most famous composition by Bobby Capó. This version has a cool, relaxed vibe, and features some sweet work by the backing vocalists. I also really like that lead on guitar.

When I think of “I Only Have Eyes For You,” I usually think of the 1959 version by The Flamingos. But the song was already a couple of decades old when that record was released. Fleur Seule delivers a great rendition, more in line with the way Peggy Lee with The Four Of A Kind performed it in the 1940s. It begins gently on piano, and then Allyson’s vocals have such a beautifully romantic sound that you want to make a home for yourself inside them. This version has a gorgeous, late-night sound, and listening to it, you are certain there is no chance for the romance to fail. It is one of the best renditions I’ve heard, and features some good work on bass. Fleur Seule then turns playful with “Zou Bisou Bisou,” a song from the 1960s (it is also sometimes written as “Zoo Be Zoo Be Zoo”). Richard Miller gives us some wonderful stuff on guitar. This group also turns in a fun, upbeat version of “Them There Eyes,” featuring some work on trumpet that should get you on your feet. Allyson Briggs is having a lot of fun with this one, and includes a bit of scat in the second half of the song. That’s followed by a gorgeous and gentle version of “Tenderly,” her vocals supported most prominently by piano, but also by some wonderful work on bass. I love this track.

Any way you slice it, “Shoo-Fly Pie And Apple Pan Dowdy” is a goofy song, and, yes, I’m totally enjoying the new rendition by Fleur Seule. It just gets better and better, especially when that delicious lead on trumpet begins, and then when those backing vocals come in. And then, when I think it can’t get any better, we get those totally wonderful touches on drums. It is a completely enjoyable track. However, my absolute favorite track on this disc is “La Vie En Rose.” It is beautiful and moving. In fact, this track is so good, my girlfriend asked me to dance the first time we listened to this album. Dancing with her while this song played is definitely the best thing that has happened in the last month or so. I could listen to this song all day. The disc concludes with a couple of Gershwin numbers. First we get “Embraceable You,” another beautiful romantic number featuring lovely work on piano. And then we are treated to a perky, swinging version of “’S Wonderful.” It is erroneously listed as “S’ Wonderful” on the CD case and liner notes, but wherever you put the apostrophe, this is a wonderful song. And this group does an excellent job with it. I particularly love the drums. As I’ve said before, you can never go wrong with Gershwin.

CD Track List
  1. Taking A Chance On Love
  2. Piel Canela
  3. I Only Have Eyes For You
  4. Zou Bisou Bisou
  5. Sabor A Mí 
  6. Them There Eyes
  7. Tenderly
  8. Manuelo
  9. Misty
  10. Shoo-Fly Pie And Apple Pan Dowdy
  11. Con Los Años Que Me Quedan
  12. Almost Like Being In Love
  13. La Vie En Rose
  14. Sweet Happy Life
  15. Embraceable You
  16. ‘S Wonderful
Standards And Sweet Things is scheduled to be released on October 9, 2019.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Paper Beat Scissors: “Parallel Line” (2019) CD Review

The title of Paper Beat Scissors’ new album, Parallel Line, made me smile the moment I saw it. Because of course there can’t be a single parallel line. It must be parallel to something. And so the title offers a question, really: what is that missing something, that missing line? It is a title that introduces an uncertainty, and that turns out to be so fitting for this wonderful new album, with songs that delve into the glorious mess of existence. I was first tuned onto Paper Beat Scissors several years with the release of Go On, an excellent album combining folk and pop sounds. Paper Beat Scissors is the project of singer and songwriter Tim Crabtree, based in Montreal. The new album features all original material, written by Tim Crabtree, who also plays many of the instruments, including guitar, bass, piano, organ, saxophone, clarinet and percussion. He is joined by Pemi Paull on viola; Sebastian Chow on violin; John Corban on violin; Chloe Chabanole on violin; Jean-Christophe Lizotte on cello; J.J. Ipsen on bass, organ and vibraphone; Sage Reynolds on double bass; Marshall Bureau on drums and marimba; Michael Feuerstack on pedal steel guitar and electric guitar; and Pietro Amato on French horn.

The album opens with “Respire,” a short and strangely pretty instrumental track. It leads directly into the second track, “Gun Shy,” a mellow and intriguing song, the acoustic guitar prominent in the mix, but with strings behind it giving the song a gorgeous, almost angelic quality. This song builds in intensity toward the end, particularly in the vocal delivery. “When we pour out the venom we’ve known/Crawl out, can’t undermine, can’t fall in line/We’d fall apart/Fully, fully loaded, fully empty of all heart.” How about those lyrics? This album is really a thing of beauty, though that beauty has a somber element at its base. Take “All It Was” for example, which seems to rise from the ground as it moves, as if to lift us too, yet asks “Is that all it was?” Check out these lines: “Caught between your rules/Cling to virtue, only you cannot believe/That you’re all that if you’re caught too.”

“Don’t Mind” has a more cheerful, upbeat vibe from its start. “Strong words, few deeds/Tell me what a friend should be/Go again, roll the dice/Show me where my heart should be.” The strings are still present, but here the beat takes a more prominent role for most of the song. Then toward the end, there is a pretty section of strings (reminding me a bit of Cat Stevens’ “Lilywhite,” where the strings take over at the end). That’s followed by “Grace,” another beautiful and touching song, the strings adding a soothing element, like they’re accompanying us as we pass from this world. “As much as you’ll ever hold/Is it enough?” Then “Anything” is a short instrumental piece, this one existing on its own, not really connected to the track after it. Tim Crabtree pays baritone saxophone and clarinet.

The first line of “All We Know” is “All we know is wrong,” though it takes a while to get the full line, Tim Crabtree first teasing us with repetition of “All we know is.” This is another interesting song. Check out these excellent lyrics: “My conceit has been razed/And the folly has crumbled/You can leave when you like/The halls and the doors haven’t changed.” Then the opening line of “Shapes” draws me in: “You pull me into shapes that I can’t get out of.” When we listen to a song like this, I feel that what we are experiencing is in part what the artist intended, and in part what we ourselves bring to it, so that each person gets something different from it. Each person has a slightly different experience of the song. “I want it all. I want none.” Pietro Amato plays French horn on this track.

“Better” has a more lively sound and an edge, its insistent rhythm driving us forward with the music. There is something wild here. “Of all the golden sheets we make it between/For all of us we know better/And each and every night, get sewn in the seams/And wash it off, can’t wash it off.” Paper Beat Scissors returns to a gentler, prettier sound with “Half Awake,” one of my favorite songs on the album. “Let it go for a while/But you won’t see it/Getting hard of hearing/Let it go, call it dying.” That moment toward the end where the strings rise is beautiful. Then the track shifts into another place, a bright place, and once there, it begins to slow, to gently let us down, or perhaps let us go. The disc then concludes with “Little Sun,” which begins a bit chaotically, until a beat emerges. The song builds from there, developing before the vocals come in. J.J. Ipsen plays vibraphone on this track. “Start a flame, some little sun.”

CD Track List
  1. Respire
  2. Gun Shy
  3. All It Was
  4. Don’t Mind
  5. Grace
  6. Anything
  7. All We Know
  8. Shapes
  9. Better
  10. Half Awake
  11. Little Sun 
Parallel Line was released on September 13, 2019 through Forward Music Group.