Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Five Stairsteps: “Our Family Portrait/Stairsteps” (2014) CD Review

The Five Stairsteps were a family group that formed in the mid-1960s, and recorded some excellent soul songs. This group wrote a lot of its own material, but also covered tunes by The Beatles and Burt Bacharach and Hal David, among others. Our Family Portrait/Stairsteps contains two complete albums, plus a few bonus tracks. It includes the group’s huge top-ten hit, “O-o-h Child,” a song I’ve loved since I first heard it as a child. This compilation also features new liner notes by Kevin Goins, including contributions from Stan Vincent, Keni Burke and Johnny Pate.

Our Family Portrait

The first record, Our Family Portrait, opens with sweet, mellow little gem titled “A Million To One,” written by Phil Medley. It’s about loving against the odds, with lines like “They’re betting everything that our love won’t survive/They’re hoping in time we’ll forget each other is alive.” Ah, those intense youthful thoughts on love. This song makes me feel like a teenager again. It was released as a single, and reached #28 on the R&B chart, and #68 on the Hot 100. “A Million To One” was recorded by several artists over the years, including Donny Osmond and Jimmy Charles And The Revelletts. “You Make Me So Mad” was released as the flip side to “A Million To One,” this one an original tune, written by Clarence Burke Jr. and Clarence Burke Sr. This is a different sort of love song, with lines like “Darling, can you explain the source of all my pain” and “It’s just that you take me through so many changes.”

A much cooler and more interesting track is “Something’s Missing,” written by Clarence Burke Jr.  This song has an intensity and a passion, and what could have easily become too big a production ends up sounding just exactly right, rather than being overdone. “Something’s Missing” was also released as a single, reaching #17 on the R&B chart and #88 on the Hot 100. Another really cool track is “Bad News,” which features some interesting changes. And again, I love the production on this track. Clarence Burke Jr., who was seventeen, arranged it, while Johnny Pate conducted. It was written by Clarence Burke Jr. and Clarence Burke Sr.

“New Dance Craze” is a bit ridiculous, due to the youngest singer in the family, Cubie, taking lead vocal duties. He couldn’t carry a tune, of course, being approximately three years old at the time. It’s cute, sort of. Fortunately, other members step in to save the tune, sort of.

Our Family Portrait concludes with a nice rendition of “I Remember You,” leaving the listener in a nostalgic mood. This is a song that has been recorded by such artists as Nat King Cole and Diana Krall.


The second album, Stairsteps, begins with a couple of Beatles covers – “Getting Better” and “Dear Prudence.” Both are decent, and this group finds some interesting things to do with the songs while remaining true to the spirit and feel of the original recordings. “Dear Prudence” was released as a single, but it was its flip side that became the hit. That song, “O-o-h Child,” was then re-released as the A-side of another single. Written by Stan Vincent, “O-o-h Child” is definitely the group’s best song. This is one of those special songs that I can’t imagine not existing. It’s a song we can reach out to, like a friend. And it just doesn’t age. In case you’re not familiar with the song, here is a taste of the lyrics: “Someday we'll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun/Someday when the world is much brighter/Ooh child, things are going to be easier.” By the way, the liner notes include Stan Vincent’s comments on this song.

“Sweet As A Peach” is kind of catchy and delightful. Sure, it’s a bit goofy, but it would be difficult to dislike this song. And why does no one use the expression “blow your mind” anymore? “Sweet As A Peach” was written by Clarence Burke Jr. “Vice The Lights,” also written by Clarence Burke Jr., is a fun dance number, but then with a surprising mellow section. I really like this track. Stairsteps concludes with “Who Do You Belong To,” which has the lines “He’s got two eyes, he's got a nose, he's got two lips/Two lips to kiss/But I've got them too.” Can’t argue with that.

Bonus Tracks

This CD contains three bonus tracks. The first, “Madame Mary,” was written by Curtis Mayfield and released as a single in 1969. It has a great vibe, with lyrics like “Now if all my pain and sorrow/Could leave me by tomorrow.” When he sings, “Come on now, Mary, Mary, Mary” I’m reminded of the end of the Monkees’ “Mary, Mary,” especially live versions.

“The Shadow Of Your Love” is a slower tune, and was also released as a single, this one in 1968. It’s good, but I prefer “Bad News,” which was used as its flip side. This collection ends with “America/Standing,” an interesting medley. “America” is a song by written by John Kay and Jerry Edmonton, and recorded by Steppenwolf as the third part of “Monster/Suicide/America” on their Monster album. The group then goes into “Standing,” a song written by Stan Vincent, before returning to “America.” This is an excellent track, due in large part to the passionate vocal delivery.

CD Track List
  1. A Million To One
  2. You Make Me So Mad
  3. Something’s Missing
  4. The Look Of Love
  5. New Dance Craze
  6. Windows Of The World
  7. Bad News
  8. Tell Me Who
  9. Under The Spell
  10. Find me
  11. I Remember You
  12. Getting Better
  13. Dear Prudence
  14. Sweet As A Peach
  15. Vice The Lights
  16. O-o-h Child
  17. Because I Love You
  18. What About Your Wife
  19. Up & Down
  20. Who Do You Belong To
  21. Madame Mary
  22. The Shadow Of Your Love
  23. America/Standing 
Our Family Portrait/Stairsteps was released on December 2, 2014 through Real Gone Music.

Theodore Bikel: “Treasury Of Yiddish Folk & Theatre Songs” (2014) CD Review

Theodore Bikel is an accomplished actor, singer, musician and composer. He played Captain von Trapp in The Sound Of Music on Broadway, and has starred in films like My Fair Lady, I Bury The Living and The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. Beginning in the 1950s he recorded several albums of Jewish folks songs. Theodore Bikel’s Treasury Of Yiddish Folk & Theatre Songs collects tracks from three different records. I don’t speak Yiddish, but the liner notes provide English translations of the lyrics, as well as phonetic Yiddish (and a pronunciation guide). The liner notes also include a piece by Theo Bikel himself.

There is certainly a sense of humor in these recordings, with material that doesn’t take itself entirely seriously. For example, there is a song titled “Bagels,” with lines like “My clothes are torn, I am unwashed/With tortured thoughts I wander about/Buy bagels/Fresh bagels/Buy quickly please/I need to sell/For I am poor and lost/And homeless in this world.” I love the serious situation followed by lines about selling bagels. What I also love is that the song features the deliciously sad sounds of a violin to help tell the tale. And at the end, the seller wanders off, calling out about his wares. And there is a track titled “In-Laws,” with the line “And here’s cousin Mindik/Have we sinned so?” Wonderful!

Some of these songs will be familiar to you, whatever your ethnic or religious background. And without understanding a word, I find these songs are still effective and completely enjoyable. I just love the sound of this music, and the passion behind it.

This collection kicks off with “A Chasene Tants,” or “Wedding Dance,” which is kind of fun and does make me wish I could speak the language. But regardless, this track makes me laugh when he lists the children toward the end. “Doina” is such a great song, and I particularly enjoy the fast pace of the vocal delivery. And then “Mayn Shtetele Belz” is sweet and moving, and puts a smile on my face. “Lomir Alle Zingen” is kind of beautiful at times.

“A Fidler” is a cute, adorable song about a kid learning to play the fiddle, and the fiddler on this track plays as if learning his instrument at the beginning. “Drei Techterlech,” or “Three Daughters,” is another that has a delightful sense of humor. It’s about a father eager to marry off his three daughters, and who, once having completed that task, is then sad. After marrying off the eldest, he sings, “Only God can know our joy/Or one who has a daughter.” And after getting rid of the second daughter, he sings, “A stone gone from my heart.”

“Dona Dona” is one that everyone likely knows, and it’s a wonderful track. I’m particularly happy to have the English translation, for though I’ve heard – and enjoyed – this song many times, I’d never known what was actually being said. I love Theodore’s delivery, with a bit of a laugh in his voice at times, as when he sings “You’re a calf but need you be?” and when he sings about the wind laughing.

“Der Rebe Elimelech” is another song I love. Music like this has always attracted me, when the pace suddenly picks up, with the feel of unbridled celebration taking over the singer and musicians. And I love the violin. This is one of my favorites of this collection. I'm also really fond of “Margaritkelech,” a pretty song telling a good tale. Another favorite is “Tumbalalayka,” which is beautiful and moving. Check out these lyrics: “It's a stone that can grow, grow without rain/It's a love that can burn for many years/And the heart can long and cry without tears.”

CD Track List
  1. A Chasene Tants
  2. Doina
  3. Beygelach
  4. Di Grine Kuzine
  5. A Pintale
  6. Machatonim
  7. Shabes Shabes
  8. Mayn Shtetele Belz
  9. Hulyet, Hulyet Kinderlech
  10. Lomir Alle Zingen
  11. A Zemer
  12. A Fidler
  13. Drei Techterlech
  14. Kinder Yorn
  15. Dona Dona
  16. Unter A Kleyn Beymele
  17. Drei Yingelech
  18. Az Der Rebbe Zingt
  19. Der Rebe Elimelech
  20. Di Younevdike Teyg
  21. Kum Aher Du Filozof
  22. Di Mezinke
  23. Margaritkelech
  24. Lomir Zich Iberbeten
  25. A Chazn Oyf Shabes
  26. Tumbalalayka
Theodore Bikel’s Treasury Of Yiddish Folk & Theatre Songs was released on December 2, 2014 through Real Gone Music.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Patrolled By Radar at The Silverlake Lounge, 12-29-14: Photos

I ended the year properly, with some seriously good live music. Last night The Sunset Drifters completed their residency at The Silverlake Lounge, and they put together a great lineup. Kicking off the night were The Evangenitals (I posted some photos from their set). The Sunset Drifters then did their show, and it was their bass player’s last gig with the band. I really enjoyed their material, especially as the pedal steel was prominent. Patrolled By Radar then went on at 10 p.m. After a very brief soundcheck, Jay Souza declared, “Good enough,” and they ripped into “Widow Next Door,” the opening track from 2011’s Be Happy. The band’s 2014 release, Cool Your Jets, is one of my favorite CDs of the year, and they played several songs from it last night, including “Lost Cause,” “Rally” (one of my personal favorites), “Died With Money” and “El Norte.”

Here are a few photos from their set:

"Widow Next Door"
"Coat Of Disappointment"
"Be Happy"
"El Norte"

The Evangenitals at The Silverlake Lounge, 12-29-14

"How Can I Choose"
Last night I saw a great lineup of bands at The Silverlake Lounge, including two bands whose 2014 releases made my list of favorite CDs of the year. Kicking off the night were The Evangenitals, whose Moby Dick; Or, The Album is on that list. They started their set with “Ahab’s Leg,” a nice slow version like that on the album, and followed that with “Just Stay Away.” Because they were a foursome last night, with Juli Crockett and Lisa Dee backed by just bass and drums, “Just Stay Away” had a more stripped down sound, with Joey Maramba’s delicious bass being very prominent. “Quee Queg” was performed with more of a funky R&B bass line and “sha-ba-dooby-doo” vocals. They also did a couple of covers:  a nice, slow version of The Dead Milkmen’s “Dean’s Dream” from the album Big Lizard In My Backyard, and an excellent rendition of “Live And Let Live,” a country song made popular by Marty Robbins. And it’s always a treat to hear the incredibly fun “How Can I Choose.”

Set List
  1. Ahab's Leg
  2. Just Stay Away
  3. Quee Queg
  4. Dean's Dream
  5. Turbulent Flow
  6. How Can I Choose
  7. Live And Let Live
  8. (I am having trouble recalling the name of this one)
Here are a few photos from their set:

"Quee Queg"
"Quee Queg"
"Dean's Dream"
"Turbulent Flow"
"Turbulent Flow"

My Ten Favorite CDs of 2014

This was a seriously good year for music, particularly the month of September. In picking my personal favorite releases of the year, I followed my usual guidelines. The CDs had to be full-length, with mostly original material – that is, they couldn’t be albums of covers, for songwriting plays a big part in my choices. No compilations, no live albums, no re-issues. With that in mind, here are my favorite CDs of 2014:

10. Peter Himmelman: “The Boat That Carries Us”

My list begins with the new Peter Himmelman album, The Boat That Carries Us, a really strong release featuring excellent songwriting and a seriously good band backing him. I was lucky enough to be able to catch him in concert this year as well, and he played some of my favorites from the new CD, including “Green Mexican Dreams,” “Mercy On The Desolate Road,” “For Wednesday At 7 PM (I Apologize)” and “Afraid To Lose.” The Boat That Carries Us was released on July 15th.

9. The Evangenitals: “Moby Dick; Or, The Album”

This year’s release by The Evangenitals, Moby Dick; Or, The Album, is quite a bit different from earlier releases, with the tracks inspired by Herman Melville’s book. The full title of the book, by the way, is Moby Dick; Or, The Whale, which The Evangenitals are clearly playing with in the title of this CD. Some of the tracks on this album are songs the band has been performing in concert for years, such as “The Lee Shore” and “Quee Queg.” And on others the band really experiments with new sounds and directions, taking some risks, all of which pay off. There isn’t a weak track here. Moby Dick; Or, The Album was released on March 18th.

8. Ronnie Fauss: “Built To Break”

Built To Break, the 2014 release from Ronnie Fauss, is a wonderful album of country and folk, with some fine lyrics. The country rock gem “Eighteen Wheels” features Rhett Miller from Old 97’s on vocals, while “Never Gonna Last” is a duet with Jenna Paulette (where she sings “I’ve been planning for the future/You’ve been living in the past”). Both of those tracks are highlights, but perhaps my favorite is “The Big Catch.” Built To Break was released on November 4th.

7. Alanna Gurr And The Greatest State: “Late At Night”

There was a lot of good music out of Canada this year. Late At Night, the second album from Alanna Gurr And The Greatest State, is a perfect example. It’s a good mix of folk and country, with some pop elements as well. But it is perhaps Alanna Gurr’s voice that really makes this album something special. Stand-out tracks for me include “By My Side,” “It’s Been A Long Time” and “Trouble.” Late At Night was released on April 22nd.

6. Slow Leaves: “Beauty Is So Common” 

I got turned on to Slow Leaves last year with the release of the EP Second Chances. That EP created some pretty high expectations for this year’s full-length release, Beauty Is So Common. And the CD exceeded my expectations. The songwriting is so good on this release. Highlights for me include “Everybody Wants To Be In Love,” “Institution” and “Rearview.” Beauty Is So Common was released on September 9th.

5. Patrolled By Radar: “Cool Your Jets” 

Patrolled By Radar is one of my favorite bands. They’re a lot of fun, but also write some damned good lyrics. Their 2014 release, Cool Your Jets, features some of their best material, including “Rally” and “Do You Know A Love Song,” two of the best songs from any band this year. Cool Your Jets was released on May 1st.

4. Ellis Paul: “Chasing Beauty” 

Ellis Paul has long been one of my favorite singer/songwriters, and this year’s Chasing Beauty once again shows his tremendous talent. On this release, he’s joined by some special guests, including Red Molly (whose own The Red Album just missed being on this list) and Kristian Bush. The whole album is excellent, but stand-outs for me include “Wasted,” “Kick Out The Lights” and “Waiting On A Break.” Chasing Beauty was released on September 1st.

3. Holly Golightly And The Brokeoffs: “All Her Fault”

All Her Fault may be the best album from Holly Golightly And The Brokeoffs. It has their great raw edge and sense of humor. It opens with “SLC,” a song that had me laughing and singing along from the first time I heard it, and which works every time I listen. But my favorites are “The Best” and “No Business.” All Her Fault was released on March 4th.

2. The Howlin’ Brothers: “Trouble”

The Howlin’ Brothers are just an absolutely fantastic group, and I get excited for every new release of theirs. Trouble, the band’s newest CD, is a whole lot of fun, with a great mix of bluegrass, country, folk, and even reggae and gospel. They do it all well. My favorite track is probably “I Was Wrong,” but the entire album is excellent. Trouble was released on May 13th.

1. Leonard Cohen: “Popular Problems” 

Yes, once again Leonard Cohen is at the top of my list. Even without “Feels So Good” (one of my favorite songs of recent years), his 2014 release is phenomenal. Finally we’re treated to a studio version of “Born In Chains.” Plus, this album features such excellent songs as “My Oh My” and “You Got Me Singing.” Leonard Cohen is eighty years old, and still writing the best songs. Popular Problems was released on September 23rd.

There are several other excellent CDs from 2014 that I should mention here. There is the self-titled album from Dreaming Bull, which I haven’t had the chance to review yet, but which I’ve listened to many times, and which is completely enjoyable. There is also Les Claypool’s Duo De Twang’s Four Foot Shack, which was one of my favorites, but didn’t make the list because it’s mostly new takes on older material. Bombadil’s Tarpits And Canyonlands didn’t make my list because it’s a re-issue, but it’s an album I highly recommend (that band has a new album coming out in 2015). Releases by Seth Walker, Bend The River, Bobby Patterson, Paul Thorn and Magnolia Memoir were all close to making my list. Basically, there was a whole hell of a lot of good music released in 2014. And I think 2015 is likewise going to be an excellent year for music.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Cowboy: “5’ll Getcha Ten” (1971/2014 re-issue) CD Review

Real Gone Music specializes in finding great, often out-of-print music from the past to re-issue. Every once in a while there will be a band I hadn’t heard before, but one that I wonder how I could have possibly gone this long without hearing. Cowboy is one of those bands. And on their second album, 5’ll Getcha Ten, originally released in 1971, they provide a great dose of country rock. This album features some wonderful vocals, good lyrics, and delicious, mellow vibes. The early 1970s were the best period for country rock and folk rock, and this album from Cowboy is as good as just about anything else released at the time. If you dig The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, CSN, and New Riders Of The Purple Sage, you should absolutely give a listen to this band.

All but one of this album’s songs are originals, most of them written by Scott Boyer. This album also features Duane Allman on a couple of tracks. This is the first official CD release of this album, and it includes new liner notes by Scott Schinder.

This album begins with “She Carries A Child,” a song written by Tommy Talton, one of the group’s twomain singer/songwriters. It has a natural vibe, which is also echoed in lyrics like, “The mother’s true conception/Depends on your reception/The delivery she will not need to be rehearsing/She learned it all from the universe.” It’s followed by “Hey There Babe,” which is probably the most fun track on this album (though “Shoestrings” is also fun, particularly its piano part). Written by Scott Boyer, it features lines like “And you won’t need no constellation to tell you who you are,” a line I really like. (Later in the song, the line becomes “And you won’t need to consultation to tell you who you are,” which I also appreciate.) This is delightful folk-rock gem.

The album’s title track, “5’ll Getcha Ten,” has a really sweet, relaxed vibe and some beautiful vocals. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “Take your time/Take your coat off/Ease your mind/Take a load off.” This one was written by Tommy Talton. There is a false ending, followed by a really nice instrumental section, which is my favorite part of the song. Cowboy follows the title track with the album’s sole cover, “The Wonder,” a song written by John McKenze. This one has a more serious feel to it, with its war-related theme.

“Lookin’ For You” is one of two tracks to feature Duane Allman, who died the same year this album was released. He plays guitar on this song, which was written by Scott Boyer. “Oh, please listen to what you heard/Because there’s a love song in every word/Oh come on, show me the way, show me the way.” The other track to feature Duane Allman is “Please Be With Me,” a song that Eric Clapton covered on his 1974 album 461 Ocean Boulevard. Duane plays dobro on this sweet, beautiful tune, which was written by Scott Boyer. Check out these lyrics: “I sit here lying in my bed/Wondering what it was I said/That made me think I lost my head/When I knew I lost my heart instead.” This is one of my favorite tracks.

Another of my favorites, “Seven Four Tune,” is also perhaps the liveliest track on this album. This one was written by Bill Pillmore. I love the vocal delivery, which has a sort of sarcastic edge on lines like “You know that I am grateful/But seeing’s I haven’t got a dime.” And I love these lines: “You can do anything that you want to/There ain’t no one here who will stop you.

The album concludes with Pete Kowalke’s contribution, “What I Want Is You.” This is another sweet, gorgeous, mellow tune, a love song with a great, laid-back instrumental section in its second half.

CD Track List
  1. She Carries A Child
  2. Hey There Babe
  3. 5’ll Getcha Ten
  4. The Wonder
  5. Shoestrings
  6. Lookin’ For You
  7. Seven Four Tune
  8. Right On Friend
  9. All My Friends
  10. Innocence Song
  11. Please Be With Me
  12. What I Want Is You
This re-issue of 5’ll Getcha Ten was released on December 2, 2014 through Real Gone Music.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Rez Abbasi Acoustic Quartet: “Intents And Purposes” (2015) CD Review

Jazz guitarist Rez Abbasi’s new album, Intents And Purposes, is an interesting group of covers of 1970s jazz-fusion compositions. Done with the Rez Abbasi Acoustic Quartet of Rez Abbasi, Bill Ware, Stephan Crump and Eric McPherson, these tracks are acoustic interpretations, often giving a more contemporary or perhaps timeless feel to material that originally seemed to be very much of its time. This group covers material from Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, among others. And as Rez Abbasi says in the CD’s liner notes, “this album is in no way a historic perspective of the 70s Jazz-Rock scene.” It is, rather, an interesting new look at, and approach to, some excellent material from that period. This album largely has a good, clear, bright sound, and features some seriously excellent work from all of the musicians.

Intents And Purposes kicks off with the Joe Zawinul composition “Black Market,” originally done by Weather Report. While still featuring a strong bass at the start, this rendition is a bit sweeter and more easy-going, with a bright vibe that I love (partly due to Bill Ware’s work on vibes). And I also really love what Eric McPherson does on drums here. This is a beautiful track that features some excellent work by Rez Abbasi on guitar, particularly toward the end when the track turns to a delicious jam. “Black Market” was the title track from Weather Report’s 1976 release.

“Black Market” is followed by Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly,” a composition from his 1974 album Thrust. Rez Abbasi’s rendition opens with that familiar groove, and then soon explores new territory, while of course returning to the main section. There are some really wonderful moments on this track, and you can hear the influence of India on Rez Abbasi’s approach at times.

I love how this band’s rendition of Pat Martino’s “Joyous Lake” begins with drums and bass, and it’s like all four musicians are testing the waters before Rez Abbasi then starts touching on the song’s theme. And then suddenly approximately two minutes in, the song opens up wider, but still maintains that sense of joyful exploration. This is one of my favorite tracks, and features some delicious work by all four musicians.

Rez Abassi’s rendition of John McLaughlin’s “Resolution” begins in a mellower, gentler way than the original, and I it find actually more interesting. It is Bill Ware on vibraphone that first takes on some of the energy, as this version builds slowly into a beast of its own.

This group also tackles Return To Forever’s “Medieval Overture,” the wild and strange opening track to 1976’s Romantic Warrior, composed by Chick Corea. Rez Abbasi Acoustic Quartet’s version at first feels quite faithful to the original, and features some excellent stuff from Rez Abbasi on guitar. The wild jam toward the end is what makes this one of my favorite tracks. And it’s followed by some quiet, almost suspenseful work on bass by Stephan Crump, which is wonderful. This version is actually a few minutes longer than the original.

Intents And Purposes concludes with Tony Williams’ “There Comes A Time,” another of my favorites. As you might expect from a composition by Tony Williams, this track features some nice drumming. But it's the overall vibe of this piece that I love. This is an excellent rendition.

CD Track List
  1. Black Market
  2. Butterfly
  3. Joyous Lake
  4. Resolution
  5. Medieval Overture
  6. Red Baron
  7. Low-Lee-Tah
  8. There Comes A Time
Intents And Purposes is scheduled to be released on February 10, 2015 through Enja Records.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Carmine & Vinny Appice: “Drum Wars Live!” (2014) CD Review

I started playing drums when I was thirteen, and the first book I got was Carmine Appice’s The Updated Realistic Rock Drum Method, which included two records. So Carmine Appice was closely associated with my love of drums. He has played with Vanilla Fudge, Cactus and Rod Stewart, among others. His brother Vinny has played with Black Sabbath and Dio. Now they’ve pooled their talents for the new release, Drum Wars Live!  This album finds them re-working some of the famous material they played on, such as songs by Black Sabbath and Rod Stewart. And of course the album includes plenty of good drumming. Joining the brothers are Jim Crean on vocals, Ethan Brosh on guitar and James Caputo on bass.

Drum Wars Live! begins with a delightfully absurd introduction, like that for a boxing match or a wrestling show: “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for Drum Wars, a battle of brothers. In this corner, from Black Sabbath, Dio, John Lennon, weighing in at a slender, muscular 175 pounds, using only a single bass drum, please welcome Vinny Appice! In this corner, from Vanilla Fudge, Cactus, Rod Stewart and Ozzy Osborne, weighing in at a whopping 365 pounds, using double bass drums to burn more calories, please welcome Carmine Appice!

And then the show is off and running with “The Mob Rules,” a Black Sabbath tune. This version is done without that long intro, getting right into the song. And if you’re thinking that because this album focuses on the drums there will be no guitar solos, you are wrong. This track features some solid work on guitar by Ethan Brosh. But of course it’s the drum work that I’m interested in, particularly the stuff toward the end of the song.

That track leads right into “Drum Wars,” which begins as a drum solo, but does feature the other musicians for a certain section. I could do without the silly shouts of “Drum wars!” But at more than eight minutes, this track features lots of great, impressive drumming. And that’s what this is all about. “Drum Wars Part 2” isn’t quite as long, but has a lot of energy and some interesting stuff (and no shouts of  “Drum wars!”).

And there is lot more drumming on this disc. “The Flintstones” is a drum solo featuring both drummers. And then each brother gets his own solo. If you love drums the way I do, there is plenty to dig on this disc, even if you’re not into hard rock.

I was never really a Dio fan, and this album includes a few Dio songs: “Holy Diver,” the title track from the band’s first album; “We Rock,” the opening track from the second album, The Last In Line; and “Stand Up And Shout,” the opening track from Holy Diver. There are also a couple of Ozzy Osbourne songs: “Bark At The Moon,” the title track from his 1983 release; and “Crazy Train,” from his debut solo album. I've always enjoyed “Crazy Train,” and this is a pretty good rendition.

Perhaps the biggest surprise on this release is the cover of Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy,” although Carmine Appice co-wrote the song. They give it much more of a hard rock feel, and their version is a couple of minutes longer than Rod Stewart’s original and includes an audience participation section.

CD Track List
  1. Intro
  2. The Mob Rules
  3. Drum Wars
  4. Holy Diver
  5. We Rock
  6. The Flintstones
  7. Carmine Solo
  8. Bark At The Moon
  9. Do Ya Think I’m Sexy
  10. Drum Wars Part 2
  11. Vinny Solo
  12. Stand Up And Shout/Heaven And Hell
  13. Crazy Train 
Drum Wars Live! was recorded in June, 2014 at The Iridium in New York, and was released on November 17, 2014 through Deadline Music.

Jim White Vs. The Packway Handle Band: “Take It Like A Man” (2015) CD Review

Take It Like A Man is the wonderful and often strange result of the collaboration of Jim White and The Packway Handle Band, with Jim White producing. Some songs were written by White and some were written by members of the band, but all have a delicious touch of the strange, combining great bluegrass sounds with some deliciously twisted and unexpected lyrics.

The album opens with “Smack Dab In A Big Tornado,” a delightfully odd bluegrass tune, with a sort of ominous tone as the lyrics start. But then the first lines take a surprising turn: “He lost his job/After eighteen years/When a big tornado/Carried him away.” Yeah, that would do it. And these lines could be taken as positive or negative, depending on your perspective: “But when he blew away/He didn’t miss a thing.” I love the way these lyrics work. This one was written by Jim White and Mike Pratt. It’s a truly interesting tune with which to open the album.

That is followed by “Breathing Room,” which begins as a peppy-sounding number, but with lyrics that act in contrast to the sound: “You’ve got to pay to play/Admission comes pretty steep/You’re gonna lose it all in the end at any rate/It’s gonna hurt real bad/It’s gonna break your heart.” And the backing vocals after he says he’s asking for a little breathing room make me smile every time. They’re kind of goofy, but totally work. And then two minutes in, the song has an interesting change, and makes me think of They Might Be Giants, particularly in the vocals. “Why such a long climb for such a short fall?” And at the end horns come in, another wonderful surprise. Hey, who is expecting tuba?

“Corn Pone Refugee” begins like a traditional fast-paced bluegrass tune, with some nice work on violin and banjo. This one is ridiculously fun, and is one of my personal favorites. It has some surprises of its own, taking a couple of interesting turns, with a sort of rap. This one was co-written by Jim White and Josh Erwin.

Horn and la-da-da-da vocals open “Not A Song” in a joyous way, and then the first lines are, “This is not a song/This is a cry for help.” I love the way these guys use juxtaposition, the way they put you in a certain mood, set up certain expectations, then take you in a different direction, for the results are often a surprised laugh. Have I mentioned yet how fun this album is? “And I don’t care if you don’t believe me/You know I’ll go on singing/Life is but a dream.”

“Jim 3:16” has a sweeter, more thoughtful vibe, as the group turns philosophical: “A bar is just a church where they serve beer.” This is another track that I love. Check out that absolutely delightful instrumental section. It’s followed by “Gravity Won’t Fail,” which has more of a country vibe, but with some interesting percussion. “You’re like a law of nature science never found/Because gravity won’t fail, but you will let me down.” Wonderful, right?

“Paranormal Girlfriend” is a short, odd bluegrass love song. “I was thinking about you/When the roof caved in/And I got a funny feeling/You was thinking about me too.” Take It Like A Man ends with a cool bluegrass gospel tune titled “Sinner!” “Sinner, you better get ready/Oh, you better get ready, hallelujah.”

CD Track List
  1. Smack Dab In A Big Tornado
  2. Breathing Room
  3. Corn Pone Refugee
  4. Not A Song
  5. Jim 3:16
  6. Gravity Won’t Fail
  7. Wordmule Revisited
  8. Paranormal Girlfriend
  9. Blood On The Fiddle, Blood On The Bow
  10. Sorrows Shine
  11. Sinner!  

Jim White is on vocals, guitar, banjo, keys, and percussion. The Packway Handle Band is  Josh Erwin on vocals and guitar; Andrew Heaton on vocals and fiddle; Tom Baker on vocals and banjo; Michael Paynter on vocals, mandolin and percussion; and Zach McCoy on upright and electric bass.

Joining them on this release are David Van Wyke on cello; Ethan Stevens on tuba and trombone; Kevin Hyde on trombone; Marlon Patton on drums, percussion, keys and additional bass; Claire Campbell on vocals; and John Keane on vocals.
Take It Like A Man is scheduled to be released on January 27, 2015 through Yep Roc Records.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Brent Mason: “All The Pretty Horses” (2014) CD Review

Brent Mason is a singer and songwriter based in New Brunswick. His new CD (his ninth), All The Pretty Horses, features mostly original material, with one exception (a cover of “Gentle On My Mind”). The album is largely folk, but with country and pop elements, and even a bit of a reggae groove on one track (“Rip Van Winkle”). This album boasts some seriously good songwriting, particularly tracks like “Walk On The Water” and “Ahead By A Thread.” And check out this line from “When Jesus Met Whiskey”: “If I didn’t have Jesus and you didn’t have whiskey, there’d be nothing between us to keep us apart.”

All The Pretty Horses kicks off with its title track, and right away the music has a bright, friendly, kind of familiar vibe. “She just sits around now/Waiting for a message or a sign/Something coming down the line/Somehow she forgot how/To jump a moving train, ride a horse away.” It feels to be about someone who’s been left behind by her own dreams, and includes a reference to Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. At first it seems to her that everyone has moved on except her, but then Brent sings, “All around the tired town, everybody’s waiting for a train.” And eventually the lyrics take on the positive tone that the music has promised from the beginning (“Jumps a moving train, rides a horse away”). This is a really good opening track.

Even better to my ears is the following track, “Walk On The Water.” This one gets right to me. I love the feel of it, its romantic, uplifting tone. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “We’re not killing time or passing through/This is where it all comes true/The world is impossible blue/I just want to walk on the water with you.” Brent Mason gives a heartfelt, earnest delivery that is perfect. Plus, I love the backing vocals on the title line, giving it a truly beautiful sound. This song struck me the first time I listened to this disc, and I love it more each time I listen.

But my absolute favorite track on this release is “Ahead By A Thread.” There are some excellent lines, such as “A glass half full is never going to be enough,” but mostly what I love about this song is its groove. It has a tasty vibe that keeps me smiling. This song is a joy to listen to.

As I mentioned, this album boasts some good songwriting, but “(W)hole In Your Heart” is an exception. Musically, the song is fine (it even features saxophone), but it’s marred by its title line, “You’ve got a hole in your heart and it’s leaking love,” a line that makes me cringe.

Jessica Rhaye sings lead on “Crash And Burn,” a song she co-wrote with Brent Mason. This one has a great late-night feel. I love Jessica's vocal delivery, particularly the simple, honest, matter-of-fact way she delivers the line, “Leaving wasn’t easy/That’s why it took so long.”

All The Pretty Horses concludes with its only cover, a rendition of John Hartford’s “Gentle On My Mind” (a song made famous by Glen Campbell). For this one, Brent is joined by Rik Barron on banjo. This is a song I’ve always loved, and Brent does a good job with it. Alan Jeffries plays guitar on this track.

CD Track List
  1. All The Pretty Horses
  2. Walk On The Water
  3. Rip Van Winkle
  4. This Amnesia
  5. Hynesight
  6. Ahead By A Thread
  7. (W)hole In Your Heart
  8. When Jesus Met Whiskey
  9. Crash And Burn
  10. Gentle On My Mind
All The Pretty Horses was released on August 19, 2014 on Left Handed Records.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Anne McCue: “Blue Sky Thinkin’” (2015) CD Review

When I saw Anne McCue perform recently at The Hotel CafĂ©, she focused her set mainly on material from her upcoming release, Blue Sky Thinkin,’ and it was this new material which made that show one of the best concerts I’ve attended this year. It also made me truly excited to hear the new album. And now that I have heard it, I’m even more excited. This is my personal favorite of Anne McCue’s CDs. It has a delightful old-time feel that raises my spirits without being the least bit hokey or artificial. This is just really good music, and all but one track were written or co-written by Anne McCue (the one cover being Regis McNicholas Jr.’s “Knock On Wood”). Anne has an incredible group of musicians backing her on this release, including Dave Raven, Carl Byron and Dusty Wakeman, and is joined on one track by Dave Alvin on vocals. Every track here is a winner.

Blue Sky Thinkin’ opens with one of my favorites, “Dig Two Graves,” a song she played when I saw her in concert last month. It’s a tune about revenge and the effect it has on the one seeking it, and yet has such a great, happy vibe. Anne McCue so naturally inhabits this musical world. There is some really nice work on guitar, plus some delicious stuff on drums and violin. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “Please dig a grave for me, mister/And one for my so-called friend/If your back should get sore/And you can’t dig no more/Feel free to jump right on in.”

“Things You Left Out In The Rain” is an absolutely beautiful, sweet, jazzy gem, with delicious vocals. “Long forgotten dream/Doesn’t matter now, it seems/There’s no need to explain/I’m just one of those things/Things you left out in the rain.” This is another she did at the concert I attended, but she had no horn section that night, and it’s the horns that really make this track a highlight. Seriously, the horns couldn’t be better. Horn arrangements on this disc are by Jim Hoke. John Hinchey plays trombone on this track. “Things You Left Out In The Rain” has been released as a single and a video, so you don’t have to wait for the album’s release to hear this one.

She follows that with “Spring Cleaning In The Wintertime,” a very cool folk tune that has a nice touch of blues. I love her vocal delivery here. She does a lot of interesting things vocally, and it all works perfectly. There is something kind of sad to the tale of this song, and yet it has an oddly uplifting effect, as it looks forward to something new while looking back at what’s gone. “You are gone/Gonna throw away my old dreams/Gonna drag ‘em way outside/Leave ‘em by the side of the road/Someone else can find.”

“Devil In The Middle” is a real treat. Even after the delight of the three previous songs, I wasn’t expecting “Hideehi” vocals. Anne McCue is joined on this track by the always-appreciated Dave Alvin on vocals, and he turns in a particularly excellent vocal performance here. He’s cooler than cool. You’ll know what I mean when you hear this track. And they sound great together. “The Devil’s in the middle/And he wants your soul/Grab him by the horns/Pull him by the tail/Poke him in the eye/Just to hear him wail.” And again, the horn section is excellent, taking you straight to New Orleans in the time it takes your heart to beat once.

Another favorite of mine is “Long Tall Story,” which is sweet and fun little love song. Anne then takes things in a different direction with “Little White Cat,” which has a country rock roadhouse vibe, with backing vocals echoing her (“Hey hey, ho ho”). It will get you dancing, or at least tapping your feet.

“It Wasn’t Even Fun While It Lasted” has my favorite title on this release. This one is a delightful and unusual tale of Paris; unusual, in that it doesn’t fall for the romance generally thought of as inherent to that city.  There is a great deal of flavor, and it mixes in some French words to humorous effect.

“Save A Life” will right away call to mind “Fever,” with that great, cool bass line at its heart and those finger snaps. But while it does have kind of a sexy sound and vibe, this is one of the most serious tracks on this release. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “You’ve measured out your life in verses and choruses/You’ve been called a liar, you’ve never been a thief/But now you’re standing on the bridge/Ooh, looking for a reason to save a life.” Dave Pomeroy plays bass on this track.

“Uncanny Moon” transports you to another time and place, and Anne’s vocals are smooth and sexy, powerful, almost haunting. I also love what she does on guitar. There is some really nice work by Carl Byron on piano.

Blue Sky Thinkin’ concludes with its title track, a happy, jazzy tune with a positive, sweet bent that you can’t help but love. Check out these lines: “I don’t know why but that breeze in the sky/Keeps blowin’ those storm clouds away/Since I met you, all of my blues have/Turned into a blue sky day.” It is such a good, positive note to end on.

CD Track List
  1. Dig Two Graves
  2. Things You Left Out In The Rain
  3. Spring Cleaning In The Wintertime
  4. Devil In The Middle
  5. Long Tall Story
  6. Little White Cat
  7. It Wasn’t Even Fun While It Lasted
  8. Save A Life
  9. Uncanny Moon
  10. Cowgirl Blues
  11. Knock On Wood
  12. Blue Sky Thinkin’
Blue Sky Thinkin’ is scheduled to be released on February 10, 2015 through Flying Machine Records.