Thursday, December 31, 2015

My Favorite CDs of 2015

It was much more difficult for me to put together a list of favorite CDs this year than other years, because there were just so many good releases. Throughout each year I give the CDs ratings on a list that I keep private (I hate assigning a number like that to an album, but it helps me keep track of which albums stand out to me as I go along), and then at the end of the year I post the top ten. The problem this year is that so many more than ten CDs got a very high rating on my list. Keep in mind that I only review CDs that I like anyway, so every CD I’ve written about this year is something I’ve enjoyed and think is worthwhile. So rather than limit the list to ten somewhat arbitrarily, I’m expanding the list to eighteen discs. And even that number is excluding some truly excellent albums. As with past years, my guidelines for assembling this list are as follows: each CD has to be full-length (at least thirty minutes); each CD has to be made up of mostly original material, for songwriting plays a big part in my choices; and the CDs can’t be live albums or compilations or re-issues.

18. The Stone Hill All-Stars: “Away” 

Away was recorded in a single day, which is impressive, especially as there is nearly an hour of original material here. But what’s much more impressive is that all of these tracks are good. My favorites are “Bent And Reversed,” “Despite The Current Mess” and “All Along The Waterfront.”

17. Birds And Arrows: “Edge Of Everything”

Birds And Arrows is the duo of Andrea Connolly and Pete Connolly, who wrote all of the songs on Edge Of Everything, an album produced by Chris Stamey. Check out “Desert Home,” “Ghosts In The Water” and “Catastrophe.”

16. Nick Ferrio: “Amongst The Coyotes And Birdsongs”

There has been a heck of a lot of good music coming out of Canada lately. Nick Ferrio’s Amongst The Coyotes And Birdsongs has some seriously strong original folk tunes. Two of this CD’s tracks – “Come Hell Or High Water” and “Mirrorball Shine” – are among my favorite songs of the year.

15. Matt Criscuolo: “Headin’ Out” 

This is the only instrumental album on my list. Matt Criscuolo is a talented saxophone player, and Headin’ Out features some really good original material. Check out tracks like “Enchanted” and “At Night.”

14. Blimp Rock: “Sophomore Slump” 

Blimp Rock is an unusual band with its own perspective and approach to music and to the world, it seems. Sophomore Slump has a wonderful sense of humor; listen to tracks like “Vampires,” “Sensitive Boys” and “Music Industry Blues” for examples.

13. The Brian Kinler Band Featuring Francesca Capasso: “The Race Against Time” 

Brian Kinler continues to impress me, even as he ventures somewhat away from jazz and more into the dance realm on this new release. And though vocalists have been a component of his live performances for years, The Race Against Time is the first CD to have a vocalist. Francesca Capasso is wonderful. Check her out on the single, “Bombshell.” There are also some excellent instrumental tracks, like the beautiful “Racing Against Time” and “The Lost City.” Another favorite is “The Coldest Part Of You.”

12. Peter Case: “HWY 62”

Peter Case is an impressive songwriter, and HWY 62, his first new album in several years, has a lot of great songs. Among my favorites are “Waiting On A Plane,” “New Mexico” and “All Dressed Up (For Trial).” He has some good musicians backing him, including Ben Harper and D.J. Bonebrake.  

11. James McMurtry: “Complicated Game”

James McMurtry is an extraordinary songwriter and storyteller, and Complicated Game features some excellent material. Check out “Ain’t Got A Place,” “She Loves Me” and “How’m I Gonna Find You Now.” His son Curtis joins him on a couple of tracks on this release, and Derek Trucks joins him on “Forgotten Coast.”

10. Holly Golightly: “Slowtown Now!”

It had been a while since we’d been treated to a Holly Golightly full band album, and Slowtown Now! is a delight. Some of my favorite tracks are “Frozen In Time,” “As You Go Down” and “What You See.”

9. Holly Golightly And The Brokeoffs: “Coulda Shoulda Woulda” 

At first, I was only going to include one Holly Golightly disc on this list. But which one? The fact is they are both fucking great. So they’re both here. And these Brokeoffs albums always put me in a good mood. Check out “Heaven Buy And Buy,” “Apartment 34” and “No Judgment Day.”

8. The Mynabirds: “Lovers Know” 

The Mynabirds are a wonderful indie pop band featuring gorgeous lead vocals by Laura Burhenn. This whole album is really good, but that lead-off track, “All My Heart,” stands out especially, and is a song that gets in my head fairly often. Also, listen to “Semantics,” “Velveteen” and “Shake Your Head Yes.”  

7. Ray Wylie Hubbard: “The Ruffian’s Misfortune” 

This is such a good album, full of delicious bluesy vibes and some folk tunes as well. And what a great voice! Check out tunes like “All Loose Things,” “Too Young Ripe, Too Young Rotten,” “Jessie Mae” and “Stone Blind Horses.” The McCreary Sisters provide harmony vocals on “Barefoot In Heaven.”

6. Chris Page: “Volume Vs. Voice”

As I already mentioned, there has been a lot of great music coming out Canada lately, and one of my favorite discs of the year is Chris Page’s Volume Vs. Voice. This album finds Chris doing the vocals and playing nearly all the instruments. That’s great, but what really makes this album something special are the lyrics. Check out “Rocket + Savings,” “Calling All Kids Reunion,” “Treatment Burns” and “The Persuasive Injury.”

5. Tom Paxton: “Redemption Road” 

I’ve been listening to Tom Paxton off and on since I first got into folk music in my teens, and yet I was still surprised at just how good his new release is. The songwriting is top-notch, with tunes here that are both moving and humorous. And there are guest appearances by John Prine and Janis Ian. Listen to tracks like “Virginia Morning,” “Susie Most Of All,” “The Losing Part” and “Central Square.”

4. Bombadil: “Hold On” 

Bombadil’s Metrics Of Affection was on my list of favorite CDs of 2013, and their new release, Hold On, has a much-deserved spot on this year’s list. I think Bombadil is one of the most interesting bands out there these days. Check out songs like “Amy’s Friend,” “Sunny December” and “Framboise.” You will not be disappointed.

3. Norma MacDonald: “Burn The Tapes” 

In 2014, Bend The River’s CD nearly made my list of favorites. And this year, Norma MacDonald’s solo album, Burn The Tapes, is near the top of my list. Though it’s a solo album, she does get some help from her Bend The River band mates. I am just really taken by both Norma’s voice and her songwriting. Check out “Blue As A Jay” (one of my favorite songs of the year), “You Can’t Carry It Around” and “Hard To Get Back.”

2. Jimmy LaFave: “The Night Tribe”

This is such a great album, with music that puts me in a really good mood. Jimmy’s vocals are excellent, and some of the material is beautiful. Check out tracks like “The Beauty Of You” and “Maybe” and “The Roads Of The Earth.” Jimmy LaFave is joined by Radoslav Lorkovic on piano and organ, along with some other great musicians. 

1. Anne McCue: “Blue Sky Thinkin’” 

I had heard some of this material earlier when I saw Anne perform in concert, and I couldn’t wait for this album to be released. And just as I expected, it’s fantastic. It’s my favorite of Anne McCue’s albums (though I don’t think I’ve heard all of them yet), and my favorite disc of 2015. She has a wonderful band backing her, including Dave Raven, Carl Byron and Dusty Wakeman, and she is joined on “Devil In The Middle” by Dave Alvin on vocals. Every track is great, but some favorites include “Dig Two Graves,” “Things You Left Out In The Rain” and “Long Tall Story.”

Well, there's the list. Though, as I said, even though I expanded it from previous years, it is still missing some really good releases from bands like Fool’s Gold, Love Love, Pugwash, Ryan Montbleau Band, and Double Naught Spy Car & Stew (among others). Also, I didn't include Paul Kelly's The Merri Soul Sessions, even though it's one of the best CDs of the year, because some of these songs were released in 2014 on singles. And because of my policy against including albums of covers, Myriam Phiro's incredible Voyages did not make the list, but you should definitely go check out that album.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Sam Coulson: “Electric Classical” (2015) CD Review

Sam Coulson is known for his work with the rock band Asia, which he joined in 2013 when Steve Howe left. At that time, he was twenty-six years old, less than half the age of the other members. He has now released his first solo album, Electric Classical. And what a delightful surprise this CD is. I expected, from the title and cover, that it would be rock versions of classical pieces (which might have been cool too). But this CD actually contains gentle and serious renditions of several short classical numbers on electric guitar, and it’s quite good and enjoyable.

Sam Coulson opens with the album with “Ave Maria,” a piece written by Johann Sebastian Bach, with a melody added by Charles Gounod a century later. Coulson plays two guitar parts on this track, with the melody having a more electric sound (though both parts are played on electric guitars). He follows that with another piece by Bach, “BWV 1007 Prelude,” a beautiful selection composed for cello. On guitar it doesn’t have quite as full a sound, but it still works. The beauty is different, but still present, and Sam Coulson handles it well. He also performs “BWV ANH 114,” also known as “Minuet In G Major.” There is some question about who composed this one, however. Coulson attributes it to Bach, but it seems most people now believe that Christian Petzold wrote it. Coulson delivers a slow, sweet rendition on guitar.

He also covers the work of Fernando Sor, beginning with “Op. 35 No. 22,” a piece that was actually composed for guitar (as many of his compositions were). It has a soft, pretty feel. “Op. 35” is a series of exercises, and Coulson performs two of them on this disc, the other being “Op. 35 No. 17.” Also from Sor, Coulson performs “Op. 6 No. 11,” and this is actually one of my favorite tracks. It’s so moving. This CD also contains a piece from another Spanish composer, Francisco Tarrega – “Recuerdos De La Alhambra,” one of his most well-known compositions, which was also written specifically for guitar. Here Sam again plays two guitar parts. On electric guitar, it doesn’t have that same tremolo effect as on the classical guitar, but interestingly has a more soothing sound.

Another of my favorite tracks is Sam Coulson’s interpretation of Antonio Lauro’s “Vals Venezolano No. 2,” which has a certain beauty. This piece was also composed for guitar. Perhaps the most interesting interpretation on this CD is that of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” here retitled “Moonlight Sonata Blues.” This piece was originally composed for piano, but of course has been performed on classical guitar. On this CD, Sam Coulson performs it as two parts on electric guitar, and as the title suggests, he gives it a definite blues feel on the lead guitar part. This isn’t the full piece, by the way. The CD concludes with “Romance,” also known as “Romance Anรณnimo,” a piece written for guitar. Coulson delivers a beautiful performance here, another of this CD’s highlights.

CD Track List
  1. Ave Maria
  2. BWV 1007 Prelude
  3. Op. 35 No. 22
  4. Recuerdos De La Alhambra
  5. Vals Venezolano No. 2
  6. Op. 6 No. 11
  7. Moonlight Sonata Blues
  8. BWV ANH 114
  9. Op. 35 No. 17
  10. Romance
Electric Classical was released on November 27, 2015.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Paul Burch: “Meridian Rising” (2016) CD Review

Paul Burch’s new album, Meridian Rising, starts from an interesting idea – do a musical biography of Jimmie Rodgers. Actually, it’s a sort of autobiography, for the songs are from the first person perspective, though they are mostly originals. And though these songs are originals, Paul Burch did his research, as any good biographer would. He spoke with Jimmie Rodgers biographers Nolan Porterfield (who wrote Jimmie Rodgers: The Life And Times Of America’s Blue Yodeler) and Barry Mazor (who wrote Meeting Jimmy Rodgers: How America’s Original Roots Music Hero Changed The Pop Sounds Of A Century), and had access to archives at the Country Music Hall of Fame. As Paul Burch tells us in the extensive liner notes, “the tales you’re about to hear are honest but not necessarily true.” And just as Jimmie Rodgers’ music dipped into several musical styles and genres, so do the songs of Meridian Rising. It’s an unusual approach to an album, to be sure, but at the end of the day what is most important is that the songs are seriously good. And yes, in case you’re wondering, there is a bit of yodeling.

The album opens with “Meridian,” about the town in Mississippi where Jimmie Rodgers hailed from. It’s a wonderful tune, mixing country and jazz elements. “Well, I’m a long shot, mama, but my arrow’s sound/Watch it climb to Orion before it comes back down/In Meridian.” Then things get moving and shaking with the fun “Cadillacin’.” This track features some nice work on piano by Jen Gunderman. Tim O’Brien plays fiddle on this track. The song then slows down just as it ends, and is followed by a bluesy yet lively folk song, “U.S. Rte. 49,” about the tuberculosis sanatorium. Leave my body anywhere but US Rte. 49/I heard the savior, he’s coming in tight/Looking for a hot meal on Saturday night.”

“Baby Blue Yodel” is a bluesy acoustic tune, complete with a bit of yodeling, and a humorous take on being presented with a baby. Jimmie Rodgers was of course known as The Blue Yodeler, and recorded a number of songs with the title “Blue Yodel.” One of my favorites on this CD is “Ain’t That Water Lucky,” a more serious tune featuring Roger Wiesmeyer on oboe. Check out these lines: “Do you know me, water/I see you in my dreams/Tell me, muddy water/Are you lonely like me/If you take me under/And I let go of my earthly charms/Will you be revealing/When I’m sleeping in your arms.”

This CD contains several instrumental tracks, all of which are fairly short. “June,” the first instrumental track, is a pretty tune named after Jimmie Rodgers’ daughter, who had died young. “Song Of Silas Green” is an even shorter instrumental, by Jen Gunderman. “Sign Of Distress” is a bluesy number. “Meridian Rising,” the CD’s title track, is for me the prettiest of the instrumentals. And the album ends with an instrumental, a cover of “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble,” arranged by Paul Burch. This is a fun taste of New Orleans flavor, getting right into it without any soft, slow introduction.

Another fun and delightful tune is “To Paris (With Regets),” which begins with a nice instrumental section that lasts more than a minute. I love when he laments that he’s never seen Paris, singing, “The closest that I came was the scent of the lilies in your perfume.” Wonderful! And of course I love that foreign sound of this track. That’s followed by “Gunter Hotel Blues,” a nice bluesy tune about the hotel in San Antonio where Jimmie Rodgers lived for a time. There is a nice humor to this song, as in lines like “Room service, you’d better send up another room here at the Gunter Hotel” and “House detective found her dead on the floor/She done checked out, to heaven or hell/Bless her heart, she paid my bill/At the Gunter Hotel.” This song also has a playful reference to “Deep Elem Blues,” a song that Paul Burch has performed live with Fats Kaplin. There is also a wonderful humor to “The Girl I Sawed In Half,” which also sports my favorite title of this CD. “She knew that I fancied her/But I kept it in my heart/’Til her partner died from fever/And she had no one to pull the saw.” This song mentions Silas Green From New Orleans, a traveling show. His girl soon has an affair with the strong man from that show, and Paul sings, “But worst of all, he had the nerve to try to play my guitar.”

“If I Could Only Catch My Breath” is a cool track that begins with a bass solo. And “Fast Fuse Blues” has some really good lyrics, like these: “Honey, you got a mind like milk turned sour in a day/And what you’re worth sure ain’t what I paid/I’m going to hobo back home/Later is coming early every day.” And there is some nice stuff on keys, helping to make this track one of my favorites.

CD Track List
  1. Meridian
  2. Cadillacin’
  3. US Rte. 49
  4. Baby Blue Yodel
  5. Black Lady Blues
  6. Ain’t That Water Lucky
  7. June
  8. To Paris (With Regrets)
  9. Gunter Hotel Blues
  10. Under Canvas
  11. The Girl I Sawed In Half
  12. Song Of Silas Green
  13. Poor Don’t Vote
  14. If I Could Only Catch My Breath
  15. Sign Of Distress
  16. Fast Fuse Blues
  17. Sorry I Can’t Stay
  18. Meridian Rising
  19. Back To The Honky Tonks
  20. Oh, Didn’t He Ramble
Meridian Rising is scheduled to be released on February 26, 2016 on Plowboy Records.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Tony Kadleck Big Band: “Around The Horn” (2014) CD Review

Tony Kadleck is an incredibly talented trumpet player who has played with an impressive list of artists, including Natalie Merchant, Joe Henderson, David Byrne, Boston Pops Orchestra and Harry Connick, Jr. And on Around The Horn, he presents his own big band arrangements of some popular songs, not just in the jazz realm but also songs from the pop world by artists like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye.

The album opens with a fun rendition of John Scofield’s “Green Tea,” featuring Keith O’Quinn on trombone and Pete McCann on guitar. This tune has a really good groove and a bright sound, and it should get you feeling good. It’s always interesting to hear guitar figuring so prominently in a big band arrangement, and I’m also fond of the bass work here.

That’s followed by “Creepin’,” the first of two Stevie Wonder tunes to be included on this CD. “Creepin’” was originally included on Stevie Wonder’s 1974 LP Fulfillingness’ First Finale. Wonder’s original has something of mellow, jazzy feel, so it lends itself well to this kind of interpretation. I really like what Tony Kadleck does with the tune, and particularly like what Dave Ratajczak does on drums here, giving the song a more interesting groove. And toward the end he gets a cool solo. This track also features Jason Rigby on saxophone and Michael Davis on trombone. The other Stevie Wonder song covered on this album is “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing,” which appeared on Wonder’s 1973 LP Innervisions. Of course, this rendition lacks that kind of funny dialogue which opens the original version. But it’s still quite good, and features some really nice work on guitar by Pete McCann.

Tony Kadleck does an excellent rendition of Michael Brecker’s “African Skies,” featuring a guest trumpet solo by Michael’s brother, Randy Brecker. This track also features some wonderful work on piano by Henry Hey, as well as some excellent stuff on bass and drums. Another highlight for me is the fantastic rendition of Cannonball Adderley’s “Wabash,” with that cool groove and bright explosions of horns. This track just makes me so bloody happy. I could listen to this one all day.

The longest track on this album is a ten-minute rendition of “One Hand, One Heart,” written by Leonard Bernstein for West Side Story. I have to admit I am not a big fan of West Side Story (watching it only because of my fascination and love for Shakespeare), but I do like the way Tony Kadleck handles it, starting with that mellow theme but building off of it, dipping into some other themes from the musical. There are some beautiful moments here, as well as some lively, exciting moments. Tony Kadleck plays flugelhorn on this track, and Aaron Heick plays flute.

This CD concludes with “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” written by George Bassman and Ned Washington. This is an interesting rendition, with a different tone than most versions I've heard. It actually opens with drums, and has both a darker and livelier feel than usual.

CD Track List
  1. Green Tea
  2. Creepin’
  3. African Skies
  4. What’s Going On
  5. Wabash
  6. How Do You Keep The Music Playing?
  7. Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing
  8. One Hand, One Heart
  9. Look To The Sky
  10. I’m Getting Sentimental Over You

Musicians performing on this CD include Tony Kadleck on trumpet and flugelhorn, Jon Owens on trumpet, James De La Garza on trumpet, John Bailey on trumpet, Darryl Shaw on trumpet, Alex Norris on trumpet, Dylan Schwab on trumpet, Randy Brecker on trumpet, Aaron Heick on saxophone and flute, Andy Snitzer on saxophone, David Mann on saxophone, Charles Pillow on saxophone and clarinet, Jason Rigby on saxophone, Janelle Reichman on saxophone, Dave Riekenberg on saxophone, Kenny Berger on saxophone, Michael Davis on trombone, Keith O’Quinn on trombone, John Wheeler on trombone, Randy Andos on trombone, Henry Hey on piano, Mike Holober on piano, Pete McCann on guitar, David Finck on bass, Dave Ratajczak on drums, Mike Berkowitz on drums, Meyer Horn on percussion and Dan Rieser on percussion.

Around The Horn was released on August 5, 2014.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Andy Gunn: “Miracle Of Healing” (2016) CD Review

Andy Gunn is a blues artist who has had his share of troubles (or perhaps more than his share), particularly with regards to his health. He was born a hemophiliac, and received a contaminated blood transfusion in his youth. And he has suffered through cancer. Twice. And of course, there was that mental breakdown, which resulted in incarceration. And so the title of his new album, Miracle Of Healing, is not just a catchy phrase; it’s a hell of a lot more personal than that. But of course healing is what the blues is all about, taking a bad situation, and singing it out, turning it into music and taking its power and making it your own. Certainly, Andy Gunn knows all about that. As he sings on “Harmony Of One,” “I’ve been hurting so long/But now that hurt has gone.” And this album should do the same for everyone who listens to it. There are lots of positive vibes here, and some wonderful songs, all of which are originals. Though this is largely a blues album, there are also strong folk and rock elements.

Miracle Of Healing opens with “Are We Thru?” Yes, the misspelling of “through” bothers me, as it always does, but this is a good blues tune. The first line is “Oh baby, you’ll miss me when I’m gone,” which makes me think of “I Know You Rider.” But it also has a bit of a dire sound when you think it’s coming from someone battling cancer. An interesting line to choose to open this album. But of course this is about being mistreated by a lover, and about getting away from that person: “One of these days, you’ll look for me and I’ll be gone.” That’s followed by “Black Heart,” which has a lighter, more fun vibe, particularly on keys and in the backing vocals. And there is some really nice work on electric guitar in the instrumental section toward the end. “A thousand daggers in my back/When will it be enough for your black, black heart?

“Beyond The Open Door” is a sweeter song, sounding closer to the folk rock realm, both in the music and the vocal approach. Of course, there is still a bluesy element to the electric guitar. This is actually one of my favorite tracks. “I feel you, though I can’t touch you/I’m hoping you’ll show me more/I’m searching, still yearning/For what’s beyond the open door.” Andy Gunn then goes back to the blues with “Brighter Days,” but with a playful vibe, especially in those “shoop shoop” backing vocals. There is a levity to its groove, and some nice work on harmonica, making this another favorite of mine. It has a very positive feel. “I’ve got a feeling things are only going to get better/From now on.”

“Hold On” also has a sweeter and pretty folk feel, and interestingly is about his own vulnerability and weaknesses, and about overcoming them. It begins with the line “Please don’t look into my eyes,” a strong opening line. This song just immediately put its hooks into me and doesn’t let go. Another highlight is the CD’s title track, “Miracle Of Healing,” a soft blues number. “I’m still yearning/Though we’re apart/For the miracle of healing/That will soothe my heart.” The album concludes with another pretty tune, “Road That Leads Back Home,” with some wonderful backing vocals.

CD Track List
  1. Are We Thru?
  2. Black Heart
  3. Beyond The Open Door
  4. Brighter Days
  5. Freedom Reality
  6. Harmony Of One
  7. Hold On
  8. Planting The Seeds
  9. Miracle Of Healing
  10. Trouble Women
  11. Road That Leads Back Home 

The musicians on this album are Andy Gunn on lead vocals, electric guitar and rhythm guitar; Neil Harland on electric bass; Kate Stephenson on drums; John Steel on keyboards; Martin Stephenson on acoustic guitar and percussion; Stevie Smith on harmonica; Jim Hornsby on dobro; Malcolm McMaster on pedal steel; and Jo Hamilton, Susanna Wolfe and Miriam Campbell on backing vocals. The album was produced by Martin Stephenson.

Miracle Of Healing is scheduled to be released on CD on February 5, 2016 on Market Square Records. It was made available as a download on July 31, 2014.