Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Roch Lockyer: “When Frank Met Django” (2018) CD Review

Say what you will about Frank Sinatra as a person (I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anything pleasant about him), but he made some excellent records, and his vocals were often perfect. As for Django Reinhardt, I first learned of him when I saw Woody Allen’s Sweet And Lowdown and was captivated by the music. He is one of the greatest guitarists. So we’re talking about two people at the top of their game, masters of music. Jazz vocalist and guitarist Roch Lockyer brings them together on his new album, When Frank Met Django. Most of these tracks are songs that both Frank Sinatra and Django Reinhardt recorded during their careers, and Roch Lockyer approaches them with a guitar style honoring the work of Django Reinhardt. Joining him are Ben Powell on violin, Rob Hardt on clarinet and Ed Bennett on bass. There is a lot of joy in this music, in its execution. So if you’re looking for something to lift your spirits, this disc may do the trick.

Roch Lockyer opens the album with “My Foolish Heart,” his vocal approach having a somewhat traditionally romantic bent, which is wonderful. But I especially love the guitar, particularly during the instrumental section. There is also some delightful, cheerful work on clarinet. This rendition follows Frank Sinatra’s early recording when he sang “the ever constant moon.” In a later version, Frank changed it to “the ever distant moon.” The “constant moon” reminds me of that famous scene from Romeo And Juliet, where Juliet tells Romeo, “O, swear not by the moon, th’ inconstant moon.” That’s followed by “It Had To Be You.” While Sweet And Lowdown turned me on to Django Reinhardt, it is another Woody Allen film I think of whenever I hear this song. Diane Keaton makes her way through this one to a not quite enthusiastic crowd in a famous scene from Annie Hall. This version by Roch Lockyer is a treat. “For nobody else gave me the thrill/With all your faults, girl, I love you still/It had to be you, wonderful you.” I love the exchange between guitar and violin during the instrumental section, which has a quicker pace than the main body of the song. It’s like a happy, loving conversation, a dance.

“When Day Is Done” begins with some wonderful work on guitar. That’s followed by an original composition by Roch Lockyer, “Musings/Improv #1,” a guitar instrumental piece, with some impressive playing. This music transports me to another time, another place, and these days I am certainly grateful for that. After all, who the hell wants to be in the United States in the time of Donald Trump and his fellow fascist creeps?  Roch follows the original composition with a delightful rendition of Cole Porter’s “Just One Of Those Things.” “Here’s hoping we’ll meet now and then/It was great fun/But it was just one of those things.” The instrumental section really takes off. That part ends somewhat abruptly; I would have loved it to continue for a while longer. “I Thought About You” is another of this CD’s delights. If I sang this song to my girlfriend, she’d say I was being goofy, but this is exactly how it is. This song has such a positive vibe, with some excellent work on both guitar and clarinet. I love that playful and sweet conversation the two instruments have toward the end. That’s followed by “Embraceable You,” and this music is really beginning to make me long for my sweetheart. I want to take her away to some distant place, where the world is just a wonderful, beautiful backdrop for us to stroll across, with cafés and narrow streets and old buildings and street musicians and rivers and sunsets. “Don’t be a naughty baby/Come to papa, come to papa, do.” The CD then concludes with another original composition, “Improv #3” (hey, what happened to #2?), a guitar instrumental with a gentle, light sound.

CD Track List
  1. My Foolish Heart
  2. It Had To Be You
  3. When Day Is Done
  4. Musings/Improv #1
  5. Just One Of Those Things
  6. Summer Wind
  7. I Thought About You
  8. Embraceable You
  9. Improv #3 
When Frank Met Django was released on February 14, 2018.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Michelle Malone: “Slings & Arrows” (2018) CD Review

Even if I hadn’t already been a fan of Michelle Malone’s music, I would have wanted to listen to her new album because of its title. I’m slightly obsessed with Shakespeare, and the title Slings & Arrows is a reference to a line from Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy. “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,/Or to take arms against a sea of troubles/And by opposing end them.” This entire country is dealing with a mass of troubles these days, and in our darker moments, we might wonder whether it might be better to just step away from them entirely. Every day it seems things are getting worse, and the only real answer – the destruction of Trump, Pence and the rest – lies well beyond our own individual means. Well, some of the songs on this album might get you probing the day’s troubles too, but this is not a depressing CD. Quite the opposite. Overall, this is an album of power, of attitude, driven by Michelle Malone’s strong vocals. She lets it rip. Slings & Arrows features mostly original tracks, written or co-written by Michelle Malone. Michelle plays acoustic guitar, electric guitar, slide guitar, mandolin and harmonica on this album. Joining her are Doug Kees on electric guitar, Robby Handley on bass, Christopher Burroughs on drums and Trish Land on percussion.

The album opens with “Just Getting Started,” an empowering song, full of energy and attitude, a good rocking number that demands some volume from your stereo. This is one you might want to sing along to, or shout along to. “You can’t stop me now/You can’t stop me now/I’m just getting started.” Onward! “Just Getting Started” is followed by “Love Yourself,” which begins with some good percussion to get your body moving. “When they go low, you go high/Do unto others, even when we don’t see eye to eye/You’ve got to learn to forgive the people thinking about themselves/You can’t love nobody until you love yourself.” Yeah, there are some tough lessons in this song, particularly these days. We all want to take the high road, but it’s difficult when the lowest road is crowded with those in positions of power and their devoted, demented followers. “You know I love my country/But she sure enough can make me cry/Just imagine how great we’d be if we were unified.”

“Sugar My Tongue” also begins by establishing a beat, and is more about pure, sexy fun than the first two tracks. This one has something of a classic soul vibe, with some disco elements. Michelle’s vocals are smoother here, sounding like the sugar she sings about. Peter Stroud joins the group on electric guitar for this track. That’s followed by “Beast’s Boogie,” a raw blues gem that comes on strong with a thumping and some good work on harmonica. This one also rocks, and should get you dancing, or at least stomping your feet. This line amuses me every time I listen to this song: “He was the Sonny to her Cher, the petrol to her match.”

The album’s only cover is “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” that gorgeous Otis Redding song, and Michelle Malone does a fantastic job with it, delivering an excellent, impressive vocal performance. Interestingly, it’s done as a duet with Shawn Mullins. He does a fantastic job too. Of course, as a duet, the song has a different feel, as we learn both people in the relationship feel the same way, so it doesn’t have quite the same heartache. By the way, Shawn Mullins also sings on Day2, the 2012 album that turned me on to Michelle Malone. Randall Bramblett is also featured on that earlier album (and on 2014’s Acoustic Winter). I’ve been impressed by Randall Bramblett’s songwriting, and on this album he and Michelle Malone co-wrote one track, “Fox And The Hound.” It’s more of a rocking bluesy song. “If I were a rocket, you’d be the fuel/We’d explode with a deafening sound as we take to the moon/Or Venus or Saturn, you never can tell/Well, I’m going wherever you’re going, come heaven or hell.

The tone at the start of “Civil War” is like angry folk, then it too takes on a heavier vibe. “Since I took your name, it’s only caused me misery/Like when you call me baby, and raise your hand to me/The bullets in the barrel/Don’t make me bring the hammer down.” This is a strong track, and it features some good work on harmonica. In “The Flame,” Michelle sings, “There’s too much darkness in here to see/And I’m so tired of misery.” Yup, that about sums it up for a lot of us these days. “Don’t give me that bad news, I can’t read it anymore/Ain’t nothing but the sad blues piling up by my door/Trust is gone now, but hope remains.” And that’s the truth too: we still have hope. There is something pretty and moving about this song. “The Flame” was written by Michelle Malone and Eliot Bronson. The CD then concludes with “Boxing Gloves,” another powerful track, in which Michelle sings, “I took off my boxing gloves and I found that I was stronger.”

CD Track List
  1. Just Getting Started
  2. Love Yourself
  3. Sugar On My Tongue
  4. Beast’s Boogie
  5. I’ve Been Loving You Too Long
  6. Fox And The Hound
  7. Civil War
  8. Matador
  9. The Flame
  10. Boxing Gloves
Slings & Arrows is scheduled to be released on March 2, 2018.

Jenny Van West: “Happiness To Burn” (2018) CD Review

In 2015, Jenny Van West won the Maine Songwriters Association songwriting contest with “Nellie,” the lead-off track to her album Something Real. She followed that album with an EP titled Honey & Hive in 2016, and now has a new full-length album coming out, Happiness To Burn. This new disc features all original material, written by Jenny Van West, with some excellent musicians supporting her. Though based in Portland, Maine, Jenny Van West recorded this album in Los Angeles, and took advantage of some of the talent in this city. I’ve mentioned this before, but there are certain musicians that I’ve learned to pay attention to, always curious about which projects they’ll attach themselves to. Jenny Van West has two of those musicians on this CD – Ted Russell Kamp on bass, and Carl Byron on keys and accordion. Also joining her are Shane Alexander on guitar and backing vocals (Shane also produced the album); Austin Beede on drums; Jesse Siebenberg on guitar, lap steel, pedal steel, percussion, dobro and ukulele; Mike Mullins on mandolin; and Justine Bennett on backing vocals.

Jenny Van West opens the album with its title track, “Happiness To Burn,” which is an absolute delight right from the beginning. This song feels like a smile, a joyous sound, with an old-time jazzy vibe. Part of that is due to Carl Byron’s work on piano, part of it to the presence of Mike Mullins on mandolin. I’m also really fond of the bass line by Ted Russell Kamp. Yet, with all of that great playing, it is Jenny Van’s West’s vocals that are the focus and that sell this one. “I’ve got my heart on sleeve/And it’s dedicated, dedicated to you/Keep the fire warm until that moment I return/We’ll have happiness, happiness to burn.” This is a wonderful tune, one of my favorites from this album.

“Live In A New Way” has more of a pop-country vibe. It features some nice work on lap steel by Jesse Siebenberg. Siebenberg may be familiar to you. He became a member of Supertramp in the late 1990s, playing with his father, Bob Siebenberg, the band’s drummer since the early 1970s. He also performed on Kenny Loggins’ How About Now album, and has played and recorded with several other artists. In addition to lap steel, Siebenberg plays dobro and ukulele on this track. Carl Byron adds some nice work on organ. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “If we could just admit we were wrong/We might have a chance of getting along/Got to live in a new way/’Cause we’ve got some debts to pay/Yeah, I do believe it’s time.” That’s followed by another of the disc’s highlights, “Never Alone,” which has a gentle folk and country sound, with Jesse Siebenberg on pedal steel. This is a beautiful song that helps remind us of what is important in these troubling times. “But we got to have faith, got to take heart/Got to stick together when life falls apart/Got to hang tough, and we got to let go/Because even when the road is rough/We’re never alone.” We all need to hear “We’re never alone” from time to time, don’t we? It wasn’t long before I was singing along to this song.

Then “45” is an upbeat, rockin’ country tune about a single, a seven-inch. However, I also feel like it’s about my age; “spins so fast” seems to apply to the world around me. This track features some nice work on piano. It’s followed by a mellower, thoughtful song titled “Where I Stand,” which is another of my favorites. Check out these lyrics: “Some things that I once understood/Are not completely clear/The night has made a silhouette/Of all that I hold dear/I’m hanging onto shadows/And none of it is real.” Not bad, eh? Carl Byron plays accordion on this one. Justine Bennett provides some nice backing vocals. “Twenty-Seven Dollars” is a fun, playful, totally enjoyable song. Mike Mullins plays mandolin on this one, and Josh Grolemund joins in on tambourine. Jenny Van West ends the album with “Embers,” a beautiful song, on which her vocals are mainly accompanied by Carl Byron on piano, with also some nice work by Jesse Siebenberg on lap steel. “And the only thing I ever owned was borrowed/Let’s leave our worries on the doorstep of tomorrow/Let’s sing and let’s remember/Let’s love ‘til love is embers/Let’s sit here by that fire all night long.”

CD Track List
  1. Happiness To Burn
  2. Live In A New Way
  3. Never Alone
  4. 45
  5. Where I stand
  6. Empty Bowl
  7. Twenty-Seven Dollars
  8. Thresholds
  9. Can’t Have You Now
  10. Embers
Happiness To Burn is scheduled to be released on April 20, 2018.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Grateful Dead: “Road Trips Vol. 4 No. 3: Denver ‘73” (2011/2018) CD Review

Real Gone Music continues to re-issue the Grateful Dead’s Road Trips series, working their way backward from the most recent release to the earliest. The latest to be re-issued is Vol. 4 No. 3: Denver ’73, which contains the complete show the Grateful Dead played on November 21, 1973, plus a few songs from the previous night. I’ve said it before, but 1973 is still my vote for the Grateful Dead’s best year (followed by 1977). The band just seemed on that year, the jams being both jazzy and spacy. This show is really strong, full of gems and great playing, particularly in the second set.

Bob Weir says “Hi ya, folks,” and the band kicks off the show with “Me And My Uncle,” a fun number that mentions Colorado in the lyrics. That’s followed by a nice rendition of “Sugaree.” They then make some technical adjustments, playing with the microphones and goofing a bit while they do. “That ought to do it for the time being,” Bob says, and the band goes into a sweet rendition of “Jack Straw.” It eases in gently, and then builds beautifully. After a good, kind of mellow, easygoing version of “Dire Wolf,” the band plays “Black-Throated Wind,” and it’s a really good, interesting version with some nice little surprises. Bob rips into those vocals toward the end, which is wonderful. The band then picks up the pace with a totally fun rendition of “Big Railroad Blues.” Listen to the playful way Jerry sings “Papa told me too” toward the end. And there is some playful “Mexican Hat Dance” tuning following that song, leading into an enjoyable “Mexicali Blues.” They keep the fun vibes rolling with “They Love Each Other.” I love versions of this song from 1973, when it had a bit more pep and there was that added section. And this rendition is particularly good. That abrupt ending caught me off guard, but I like it. Bob then slows things down with “Looks Like Rain.” This is a beautiful and powerful version. They follow that with “Here Comes Sunshine,” a song off Wake Of The Flood, which was the band’s new album at the time. This version develops into a really good jam, and ends up being one of the highlights of the first set. A breezy “Big River” and a beautiful “Brokedown Palace” round out the first disc.

The second disc begins with the last song of the first set, Bob’s “Weather Report Suite,” from Wake Of The Flood. When I was seeing the band in the 1980s and 1990s, they’d only do the third part of the suite, “Let It Grow.” But here we get a nice full rendition, with a good jam. The second set then kicks off with another tune from Wake Of The Flood, “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo,” a wonderful version that leads straight into “Playing In The Band.” This is one of those special second sets that has a theme the band returns to. This time it’s “Playing.” Some of the early versions of this song weren’t anything exciting, but by 1973 the band was stretching out on this one, and the jam here is definitely worth checking out. This is when things get interesting. “El Paso” somehow emerges naturally out of that jam, flowing easily from “Playing” and sounding great. The band is cooking right along now. Usually there is a pause after “El Paso,” but this time the band dives right back into the “Playing” jam. And then we get a bit of “Wharf Rat,” just a delightful tease which becomes a “Dark Star” tease before the band eventually begins “Wharf Rat” properly. This is the Grateful Dead at their best, letting the muse take the music where it will. This is a phenomenal version of “Wharf Rat,” full of passion, yet delicate and intimate at just the right moments. From there, the band returns to the “Playing In The Band” jam. This is when things get jazzy. Check out Billy’s work on drums. The band is grooving. Then after a couple of minutes, things begin to get less settled, stranger, darker. The sound rumbles, there is a sense of foreboding, but crazy gnomes are at work turning gears, moving the machinery up toward the sun again, and you know it will turn out all right, sooner or later. Sure enough, things start coming together, and we hear that familiar part to “Playing,” and then the song bursts forth again. Oh yes! And as the band eases out of “Playing,” it eases into “Morning Dew,” a rendition that is tender, gentle as it starts, then builds into something powerful, yet still finds those tender, moving moments later on. It’s a pretty amazing rendition to finish up the second disc.

The third disc kicks off with “Truckin’,” to get everyone moving. See, the world hasn’t ended after all. There’s still plenty of dancing to do. Ah, “What a long strange trip it’s been.” But the band is not done yet, and the jam leads straight into “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and then into a lively, energetic, totally delicious version of “Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad.” They then wrap up the second set with “One More Saturday Night.” It wasn’t a Saturday, but no matter, the band wanted to end the set with a party number. The encore is a sweet version of “Uncle John’s Band.”

The third disc includes a few tunes from the previous show, beginning with “Truckin’.” Yeah, they did “Truckin’” two nights in a row, but they sure didn’t play it exactly the same way two nights in a row. Hell, they couldn’t do that even if they tried. This one has some fantastic moments, and the jam goes in a different direction from the other version, eventually leading to “The Other One.” Holy shit, Phil’s pounding intro is different from other versions. This is a song that the band found endless ways of attacking, always making it interesting. This version begins with a nice, long, wonderful jam, an energetic and bright beast. And after the first verse, things get crazier, weirder, just the way we like it. Then the jam turns jazzy and we get a bit of a “Mind Left Body” jam before easing gently into an absolutely beautiful “Stella Blue,” one of my favorite songs. “It seems like all this life was just a dream.”

CD Track List

Disc 1
  1. Me And My Uncle
  2. Sugaree
  3. Jack Straw
  4. Dire Wolf
  5. Black-Throated Wind
  6. Big Railroad Blues
  7. Mexicali Blues
  8. They Love Each Other
  9. Looks Like Rain
  10. Here Comes Sunshine
  11. Big River
  12. Brokedown Palace
Disc 2
  1. Weather Report Suite
  2. Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo >
  3. Playing In The Band >
  4. El Paso >
  5. Playing In The Band >
  6. Wharf Rat >
  7. Playing In The Band >
  8. Morning Dew
Disc 3
  1. Truckin’ >
  2. Nobody’s Fault But Mine >
  3. Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad >
  4. One More Saturday Night
  5. Uncle John’s Band
  6. Truckin’ >
  7. The Other One >
  8. Stella Blue
Road Trips Vol. 4 No. 3: Denver ’73 was released on February 2, 2018 through Real Gone Music.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Nathan Xander: “Blue House” (2017) CD Review

Nathan Xander is a singer and songwriter based in New York. His is a voice of experience and understanding, and he is adept at crafting songs that engage and move us. His latest release, Blue House, features all original material. Joining him on this release are John Atzberger on guitar; Keith Rowland on bass; Anders Griffin on percussion; and Drew Nix on keys, guitar, bass, percussion and backing vocals. The music here is a mix of folk, country, rock, and blues, with a focus on the lyrics. Fans of bands like Patrolled By Radar and Wilco should certainly appreciate this album.

The album opens with “Mount Washington,” which has an interesting tone – kind of dark, yet kind of sweet. That sound pulled me in immediately the first time I put this disc on. And check out these lyrics: “There’s no savior on the South Side/No one left to accept the angel’s share/But if you want to stay on that mountain/May the devil meet you there.” Yeah, this album is certainly not background music. “Mount Washington” is followed by “(What It Takes To) Make A Man,” a folk rock song which features some nice work by Nathan Xander on harmonica. “You’ll find it in the eyes of everyone that needs you/A little of what it takes to make a man.”

One of my favorite tracks is “Over You, Over Me.” I was hooked at the song’s first line, which is “Sometimes I get tired of what I think I want to be.” That’s one of those excellent lines that might mean something different for each person who hears it, but feels applicable to all of us in some way. This line also stands out: “I know a few things about being lonely.” And soon after that line, Nathan allows his voice to get raw, in a moment of need, as he opens himself up on “But if I yell for you will you come cover me.” Yeah, this is a seriously good song. Another of the disc’s highlights is “I Remember You Now.” It has a kind of mellow, psychedelic-sounding opening, which I love, especially that guitar. Plus, I really like Nathan’s vocal performance on this track. “The little things that I can rely on/I hope you remember me, as I remember you now.”

“Enoch’s Blues” is a cool song, with – as its title promises – a strong, bluesy vibe. Perhaps the most interesting track is “Old Boots.” It eases in gently with some nice work on guitar, starting as a sweet folk song. Then suddenly it comes on forcefully, demanding your attention. “Hold your breath and pull your head from the air/See that things never really change/Almost home, find your door over there/Find comfort in things that remain the same.” There is also some good work on percussion. “Pennsylvania” made me laugh at the start, its first lines being “New York City makes me feel like a redneck/But back home I’m still the weirdest child.” This is another of the album’s highlights, a fun, energetic tune about thinking about home. This is one a lot of folks can probably relate to, those of us living in a big city and sometimes feeling nostalgic about home. The album then concludes with “Day To Day,” which also is about returning home (or trying to), but with a very different feel. It has a gentle, thoughtful sound, and features some nice work on harmonica. The line at the end that always stands out for me is “And I’m thankful there’s bad habits I still haven’t picked up.” I like it because you can look at it two ways – that he’s happy there are some bad habits that he can pick up later when he wants something new, or that he’s glad to have avoided at least a few bad habits in his time.

CD Track List
  1. Mount Washington
  2. (What It Takes To) Make A Man
  3. Over You, Over Me
  4. You’re Never Wrong
  5. Peter And Sam
  6. I Remember You Now
  7. Enoch’s Blues
  8. Unknown Road
  9. Old Boots
  10. Shadows
  11. Pennsylvania
  12. Day To Day
Blue House was released on July 17, 2017 on Trailer Fire Records.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Tommy Dardar: “Big Daddy Gumbo” (2018) CD Review

Blues vocalist and harmonica player Tommy Dardar released his album Fool For Love in 1999 (it was later re-released as Blues Fool in 2008), then a couple of years later began recording his follow-up. Nine tracks were recorded in 2001, but were left unfinished and unreleased. Following Tommy Dardar’s death in July of 2017, several musicians were brought in to finish the album, at that point a labor of love. And now, at last, we have Big Daddy Gumbo, a seriously fun and enjoyable CD, and testament to Dardar’s talent and joy. It features a couple of songs that Dardar wrote, along with several written by bandmates Johnny Lee Schell and Jon Cleary. The core band on the original recordings, by the way, is made up of Tony Braunagel on drums, Hutch Hutchinson on bass, Jon Cleary on piano and Johnny Lee Schell on guitar. Joining them are Mike Finnigan on organ, Barry Seelen on organ, Joe Sublett on saxophone and Jimmie Rose on percussion, as well as Teresa James, Tommie Lee Bradley, Larry Fulcher and Terry Wilson on backing vocals. (You might recognize several of the names as members of Teresa James And The Rhythm Tramps.) Proceeds from this album will go to Dardar’s family.

The album opens with “It’s Good To Be King,” written by Johnny Lee Schell. This is blues, but with a great raw celebratory air, particularly in Tommy Dardar’s vocal delivery. “I’d have a pretty princess even when I’m old/Make everybody round me do just what they’re told/I’d have a funny jester make me laugh and sing/Hey lawdy lawdy, you know that it’s good to be king.” It’s a rockin’ blues number that gets things off to a wonderful start. And check out that piano. That’s followed by “Headed Down To Houma,” a deliciously fun number written by Tommy Dardar. Oh yes, let go of our troubles and just enjoy this New Orleans-flavored music. “Oh, it’s been a mighty long, long time/Since I danced and twirled/A little Cajun girl/And joined that second line.” A second line is that group of folks that follows a band in a street parade, joining in the fun. And this song has that same lively, merry vibe.

“Baby I Can Tell You” is a strong, straightforward blues number written by Johnny Lee Schell, featuring some wonderful work on harmonica as well good backing vocals. “Well, I can tell by the way you kiss me/Things are going to work out fine/And I can tell by the way you hold me/In the middle of the night.” Then the drums announce that “C’mon Second Line” will be another joyful, fun party tune, and indeed it is. The lyrics not only mention Mardi Gras, but also contain a reference to “Iko Iko.” And I love the piano part. “C’mon Second Line” was written by Jon Cleary and originally included on his album Alligator Lips And Dirty Rice. That’s followed by another song written by Jon Clearly, “Let’s Both Go Back To New Orleans,” which has a great early rock and roll vibe. I’m a total sucker for this sound, this rhythm. Plus, I love the vocal performance. This one too mentions Mardi Gras. “Take me back to New Orleans/Where I want to be.” And this track features more cool work on piano, particularly toward the end. “In My Mind” also has a classic vibe, but is a slower, stirring number. “Now there’s another man/I see him hold you tight/The only time I hold you/Is in my dreams at night.” This song, written by Tommy Dardar, is another of this disc’s highlights.

“Shake A Leg” is another fun number, this one written by Terry Wilson and included on Teresa James And The Rhythm Tramps’ Live. It features more good work on harmonica. The album then concludes with its title track, “Big Daddy Gumbo,” written by Johnny Lee Schell and featuring some delightful backing vocals. Actually, the backing vocals are basically the only vocals, with the song working as a sort of tribute to Tommy Dardar. Big Daddy Gumbo was Tommy Dardar’s nickname. This track has some wonderful stuff on sax, as well as cool work on harmonica.

CD Track List
  1. It’s Good To Be King
  2. Headed Down To Houma
  3. Baby I Can Tell
  4. C’mon Second Line
  5. Let’s Both Go Back To New Orleans
  6. Dangerous Woman
  7. In My Mind
  8. Shake A Leg
  9. Big Daddy Gumbo 
Big Daddy Gumbo was released on February 13, 2018.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Chris Smither: “Call Me Lucky” (2018) CD Review

Chris Smither has been putting out excellent music for a long time. I started listening to him in my late teens, around the time of the release of Another Way To Find You. Since then, he has consistently given us strong material, mixing folk and blues. As he sings in “By The Numbers,” “You can count on me.” Indeed, we can. His new release, a two-disc album titled Call Me Lucky, is just exactly what I want from Chris Smither, with topnotch songwriting and truth pouring from every line. It features mostly original material, but also some interesting choices of covers. The second disc contains quite different renditions of five of the original tracks from the first disc. The musicians backing him on this release include Billy Conway on drums, percussion and acoustic guitar; Keith Gary on piano and backing vocals; David Goodrich on guitar, piano, kalimba and percussion; Matt Lorenz on violin, piano, organ, guitar and backing vocals; and Mike Meadows on drums and percussion.

Chris Smither kicks the new album off with “The Blame’s On Me.” This song is sort of the title track, as its first lines are “They call me lucky, but I don’t know why/I ain’t been lucky since the day you said goodbye.” These lines grabbed me, but one line that really stuck out for me is, “They call me crazy and it might be true.” We all feel a little crazy these days, and certainly every other person out there is bonkers, no question. This tune is a good, bluesy gem. Chris follows that with a very cool cover of Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene.” This version is unlike any other I’ve ever heard, with Smither’s vocals sounding delightfully rough. In this version, it feels like he’s really asking her, “Why can’t you be true?” Like he truly wants to know, and needs to know. There are some surprising elements to this rendition, including the presence of violin, the use of backing vocals, and even some haunting whistling. You just have to hear this track. It will give you a whole new perspective on this song.

“Down To The Sound” is interesting right from the start, sounding like the band is tuning up, getting ready, and then a folk sound emerges. It’s a moving, intriguing song. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “Chaotic collections of symbols of me/It all comes down to the sound/And when you can’t find a key/Spin it around on the common ground/’Til it sounds like me.” That’s followed by “Nobody Home,” a lively folk tune with the feel of rock and roll, particularly in that piano, and in the vocal delivery, which reminds me a bit of Bruce Springsteen. There is also some nice work on violin.

Something about “By The Numbers” had me nearly in tears the first time I listened to it. I’m not sure if that says more about me or the song, but there you have it. I think a lot of us are on the edge these days, and music has always had a strong effect on me. But something about the tone, the words, Chris’ delivery really got to me, and quickly. “One more time into the deep unknown/One more time into the soul/One more run to get this done/Then let it go.” Or maybe it was the line “And don’t get old alone.”  And at the end, when he sings, “You can count on me, count on me,” there is some relief. I think we all need to hear someone say that these days. Then “Change Your Mind” has a somewhat playful vibe. “There’s changes in the weather, it’s a mystery every day/Yeah, but life goes on no matter rain or shine/The birds don’t change their feathers just because the sky is grey/Much less would I consent to change my mind.”

Chris Smither does an interesting, thoughtful rendition of “Sittin’ On Top Of The World.” This is a song that I first heard done by the Grateful Dead, who included it on their self-titled debut LP. This version by Chris Smither is a lot slower, more in line with earlier renditions, and is really good. The first disc ends with “Lower The Humble.” Check out these lyrics: “Calls to action, guns and steel/Mindless distractions to make us all feel/That we live to some purpose, but what they reveal/Is the depth of the hunger for anything real.”

The second disc opens with a cover of The Beatles’ “She Said She Said.” Like with “Maybellene,” Chris Smither really gives his own personal spin to this song. This time, the pace is basically the same as the original version, but the tone is more intimate and honest. I love it. The rest of the tracks on the second disc are different versions of songs from the first disc, beginning with a rowdy, forceful take on “Everything On Top.” It’s like a totally different song. That’s followed by “Down To The Sound.” Like the version on the first disc, this version is moving and intriguing, but it has a different sound, a different vibe. I particularly like Chris Smither’s vocal delivery on this version. This version is without violin.

“Nobody Home” is quite a bit different from the version on the first disc. The focus is more on the vocals, and as a result that verse about Trump packs more of a punch in this version. “I said I was a citizen just tryin’ to cut a deal/For a Russian unicycle with a missin’ wheel/They let me through/I saw a clown with a comb over tryin’ to float a loan/Through the CIA while he tweeted on his phone/But there ain’t nobody home.” I like this song on the first disc, but this version on the second disc is one of my absolute favorites. I really appreciate the lyrics, particularly these lines: “It’s getting hard to maintain connections in a personal way/Everybody wants to text me ‘cause they ain’t got nothin’ to say/Believe me when I tell you it’s like being alone.” Perfect. The second disc concludes with “By The Numbers.” I mentioned how the version on the first disc really affected me. Well, this version is somehow even more stirring. On this rendition, Chris’ vocals are accompanied by just piano. A beautiful way to end this exceptional two-disc album.

CD Track List

Disc 1: A Side
  1. The Blame’s On Me
  2. Maybellene
  3. Down To The Sound
  4. Nobody Home
  5. By The Numbers
  6. Change Your Mind
  7. Everything On Top
  8. Sittin’ On Top Of The World
  9. Too Bad, So Sad
  10. Lower The Humble
Disc 2: B Side
  1. She Said She Said
  2. Everything On Top
  3. Down To The Sound
  4. Nobody Home
  5. Change Your Mind
  6. By The Numbers
Call Me Lucky is scheduled to be released on March 2, 2018 on Signature Sound Recordings.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Nina Simone: “Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles” (2018) CD Review

When I think of Nina Simone, I usually think of her distinct and wonderful voice, and sometimes forget what a damn fine pianist and arranger she was too. Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles, the new CD release of her earliest recorded material, is providing me a delightful reminder of her talents, particularly as there are several instrumental tracks on it. This CD contains all of the tracks from Little Girl Blue, her first LP, as all of those songs were released on singles as well, plus three other songs from that first session which were also released on singles (and were included on Nina Simone And Her Friends). Most of the material she chose for this session was written by other artists, but there are a couple of original tunes as well. Accompanying her on these recordings are Jimmy Bond on bass and Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums. This CD includes fairly extensive liner notes by Ashley Kahn, plus some photos.

This CD opens with a gorgeous, gentle, romantic rendition of “Porgy (I Loves You, Porgy).” Ah, you can never go wrong with Gershwin (I may have mentioned that before). This track has a late-night vibe, with Nina Simone providing a very light touch on piano, the bass and drums as unobtrusive as possible, the focus squarely on Nina’s vocals. This recording makes me want to reach out to her, to hold her. This track, paired with “Love Me Or Leave Me” on the single, was a hit for her, reaching #18 on the Billboard Hot 100. This version of “Love Me Or Leave Me” is lively and delicious, one of my personal favorite tracks of this compilation. The Peak Show covered a portion of this song in their song “O’Day” (Anita O’Day also released a fantastic rendition of “Love Me Or Leave Me”). “Love me or leave me and let me be lonely/You won’t believe me, but I love you only/I’d rather be lonely than happy with somebody else.” Nina Simone seems to have a wonderful time singing this tune, and she also delivers some great work on piano. Really, it’s her work on piano here that sets this rendition apart from other versions of this song.

“Little Girl Blue,” used as the LP’s title track, is such an interesting recording, at times sounding serious and moving, other times playful, with nods to “Good King Wenceslas” on piano. Her voice is gorgeous, just listen to the way she delivers the lines “It’s time you knew/All you can ever count on are the raindrops/That fall on little girl blue.” And the way she sings the opening lines of “He Needs Me,” the flip side to “Little Girl Blue,” she makes us believe her. “He needs me/He doesn’t know it, but he needs me.” Her voice is one of honesty and understanding, having assessed the situation and delivering the inevitable conclusion in a straightforward manner. There is something strangely both strong and delicate about her here.

The first of the collection’s instrumental tracks is “African Mailman,” an original composition that was not included on Little Girl Blue, but was released on Nina Simone And Her Friends, as well as the flip side to “Don’t Smoke In Bed.” This is a fun, energetic number, with a strong rhythm. That’s followed by another lively number, “Mood Indigo,” the song used as the title track for this collection. Nina Simone’s version of this one moves at a good pace, Nina riding that wonderful wave created by the bass. During the instrumental section, Nina’s piano comes roaring along gloriously, then slides back again, taking up a position with the bass so Nina’s voice can shine and soar again. It is certainly no wonder why this track was chosen as the title for this release. Then we get the second of the CD’s instrumental tracks, “Central Park Blues,” written by Nina Simone. This delightful, interesting number was chosen as the closing track for the Little Girl Blue LP.  “Good Bait,” another instrumental track, is one of my favorites. It has such a cool rhythm, and some seriously enjoyable work on piano. “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the disc’s final instrumental number, is beautiful.

Another of my favorite tracks, “For All We Know,” is one that was left off Little Girl Blue and included on Nina Simone And Her Friends. This one features some powerful piano-playing and moving vocal work, a phenomenal track. I particularly love the ending. “Yes, tomorrow may never, never come/For all we know.”  Another highlight is “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” which concludes the disc and is an absolute delight. Her work on piano here has me smiling every time I listen to it, the sheer joy of it is almost overwhelming. And the way she sings the word “clothes” in the line “My baby don’t even care for clothes,” coupled with that pause after the line, leads us to know exactly what she’s talking about, and it’s not couture. Okay, I have to mention one thing about the version of “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands” included on this disc. It sounds like Nina’s singing, “He’s got the little bits of baby in his hands,” which of course gives a different feel, and creates for me an image of either a bloodthirsty god or a god who just doesn’t know his own strength, like Lennie in Of Mice And Men.

CD Track List
  1. Porgy (I Loves You, Porgy)
  2. Love Me Or Leave Me
  3. Little Girl Blue
  4. He Needs Me
  5. Don’t Smoke In Bed
  6. African Mailman
  7. Mood Indigo
  8. Central Park Blues
  9. For All We Know
  10. Good Bait
  11. You’ll Never Walk Alone
  12. Plain Gold Ring
  13. He’s Got The Whole World In His Hand (Alternate Take)
  14. My Baby Just Cares For Me
Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles was released on February 9, 2018.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Mason Summit: “Summer Cold” (2018) CD Review

A few years ago I wrote a review of Mason Summit’s 2014 release, Loud Music & Soft Drinks, and in it I mentioned that I was impressed by Mason's work and was a bit shocked to learn that he was only eighteen. I wrote, “Imagine all the good things still to come from this singer/songwriter/musician.” He didn’t wait long to give us some of those good things, releasing Gunpowder Tracks in 2016, an excellent album with well-crafted original songs, and now Summer Cold. Once again I am impressed by his songwriting and his style. This album features all original material. In addition, this one finds him playing most of the instruments himself. In fact, only three tracks feature other musicians. John Groover McDuffie, who played on the previous two releases, here masters the recordings, as well as engineers and mixes a few tracks. It was the participation of people like John McDuffie and Carl Byron that first got me interested in Mason Summit’s work. But it is Mason’s songwriting and delivery, as well as his ability to surprise and engage me, that keep me interested.

This new album opens with “Almost Fell For It,” with a sound and style somewhere between pop and punk, and mostly punk in attitude. The line “I almost fell for a total crock of shit” made me laugh the first time I listened to this disc. “To say I told you so/I’d be a hypocrite/’Cause I almost fell for it/It’s so obvious now/It pains me to admit/That I almost fell for it.” Is this the perfect song for these days? I mean, there is so much bullshit out there. Sadly, a lot of folks have fallen for it. (Seriously, how does anyone believe a single word that comes out of Donald Trump’s hole?) This track features Jeff Frantom on bass and Jarren Heidelberg on drums, and is one of the tracks engineered and mixed by John McDuffie. Then “Take What I Can Get” has a gentler sound, but this song is a good companion to the first track. Its first line is “I expect nothing from you, and you haven’t failed me yet.” There is a delicious, strangely sweet humor to this song, as he follows that line by singing “I’ll take what I can get.” So even as he offers biting lines like “Your giggle makes me gag/Your smile makes me choke” he admits to not having (or even wanting) a distance from the person who is the song’s subject.

There is humor also in “Voodoo Doll,” in the pain the character suffers, in the way it is expressed. The opening lines of this one are “I call you now not seeking closure/Rather one more excuse to lose my composure.” And the line “But I think I have discovered a whole new type of pain” makes me smile. These are some good lyrics, right? And check out these lines: “And I don’t want to get better/I don’t want to get well/I think I’ll spend forever/In this broken-hearted hell/I’m self-sufficient, I can break my own heart/I don’t need anyone else to help me with that part.” Yeah, he’s a damn good songwriter. I could quote this whole song as examples of his talent. And the lyrics are delivered so simply, in a manner unadorned, accompanied mainly by some steady strumming on guitar. Then in “Like Hell,” the line that really stands out is “I miss you like hell and I hope I never see you again.” That’s one hell of a good line.

“Biting My Nails” is a darker-toned, engaging folk tune. It contains a strange, surprising play on the word “bluff”: “Racing toward the cliff, until I call your bluff.” But I also like the gentle instrumental sections of this song. The album’s only instrumental track, “Casu Marzu,” is a strange one. It borders on cheesy (as possibly admitted to in its very title?), with its electronic drumbeat and tone, but becomes twisted along the way, before it can get into that realm, feeling almost like a comment on that type of music. An interesting effect. Before I can think too much about it, the track is over (it’s less than two minutes long).

I’m trying to get over a cold. It came on in the evening of Valentine’s Day, and seems reluctant to leave me. The first time I listened to “Summer Cold,” the album’s title track, I started coughing, and though it is not summer, I appreciated my body’s connection to the music. “I hope it doesn’t last too much longer/I’ve got this summer cold/I hope it doesn’t spread/So I’ll stay here in bed ‘til I’m stronger.” There is some humor when he explains how he got his cold. This track features Jeff Frantom on bass and Jarren Heidelberg on drums, as does the album’s closing song, “Stick It Out,” which has more of a pop sound. John McDuffie mixed both tracks. “I’m gonna stick it out/For however long it takes/I’m gonna stick it out/’Til my mind and body break.”

CD Track List
  1. Almost Fell For It
  2. Take What I Can Get
  3. Voodoo Doll
  4. Like Hell
  5. Catch & Release
  6. Biting My Nails
  7. Alone With You
  8. Casu Marzu
  9. 7th & Santa Fe
  10. Summer Cold
  11. One Good Thing
  12. Stick It Out
Summer Cold was released on January 19, 2018 on Winter Heat Records.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Molly Brulé: “The Things I Know” (2017) CD Review

Molly Brulé is a singer and songwriter based in Boston, deftly mixing folk, country and pop elements in her music. She released her debut EP, Seasons, in 2015, and recently followed that with a full-length CD, The Things I Know. The new album features all original music, written by Molly Brulé. Joining her on this release are Mike Levesque on drums; Sean McLaughlin on electric bass; Bryan Worley on upright bass; Dan King on guitar; Chris “Gooch” Bloniarz on mandolin, banjo and organ; Eva Walsh on violin; and Liz Lawrence on pedal steel. Sarah Brulé and Amy Brulé provide backing vocals.

Molly Brulé opens this album with “Lose You Now,” a song with sweet folk-pop sounds. She employs some traditional folk instruments, such as mandolin and violin, and applies them to a song with strong pop elements. Or is she applying pop elements to a folk and country song? I suppose it doesn’t matter. Either way, her voice is able to thrive in this bridging of genres, with country, folk and pop all wrapped up in her delivery. “The silence screams at us/Begging us to break/But we're wordless just because/We're too damn tired.” “Lose You Now” is followed by “Band-Aids,” which has a comforting, friendly, positive sound, a sound we can all use these days as we try to find a way forward through the daily disasters since that mendacious, narcissistic racist stumbled into power. “Forgive and try to forget/Rebuild without regrets/There is something beautiful/Still under the rubble.”

“One Last Night” features perhaps the album’s most moving vocal performance. Here she expresses vulnerability, a desire, a need, even as things seem to be ending. “Hold me close, one last night with you.” And as she urges “Don’t hold back, don’t hold back,” we get the sense that she herself is not holding back, but laying herself bare. “You’re better off/Without my love/It was never enough/But what’s done is done/Now I feel the sun/Shining through to me now.” That’s followed by “Ticket West,” a lively song that I’ll be adding to my road trip play list, especially because of these lines: “Not gonna stop, so don't even try/The highway is wide open.”

“Promises” begins with a sweet folk vibe, that violin rising above the comforting rhythm, and then Molly’s vocals sounding so loving, so honest. “Oh, my world is/The color of your eyes/Everything else that I see/Is just black and white.” The song then kicks in with a joy that might get you moving. This is a really good love song. Oh, to need someone is a wonderful, frightening, beautiful thing, isn’t it? And she expresses it so well. “You are so strong/When I am weak/And you are so grounded/When I can’t find my feet/Even though tonight/You’re a thousand miles away/I can still hear your heartbeat beating away.” And I love the violin, particularly toward the end. That’s followed by another love song, “Hey There,” a delightful, playful song. And as she sings “I wanna be/The girl that drives you crazy/And you could be/The one that makes me happy,” her voice sounds so innocent, youthful, and excited. There is even a bit of whistling toward the end. With that and a mandolin, how could anything sound happier? “’Cause I finally found that real life/Is better than my dreams.” Oh yes.

Perhaps the most interesting track is “My Old Friend.” This one engages you and grabs hold immediately and doesn’t let go. That bass line, and the way the strings are used, and Molly’s vocal delivery all add up to an intense feel. “It's a long way, a long way down/I hear your, hear your sound/Echoing dropping me down the well/'Til it's me, only me.” I like this entire album, but this might be my favorite track. This one really demands your attention. The CD then concludes with a different version of “Band-Aids.”

CD Track List
  1. Lose You Now
  2. Band-Aids
  3. One Last Night
  4. Ticket West
  5. Promises
  6. Hey There
  7. Dear Mom
  8. My Old Friend
  9. Band-Aids
The Things I Know was released on December 1, 2017.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Chris Hillman: “The Asylum Years” (2018) CD Review

Known as a member of The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, Chris Hillman started a solo career in 1976, with the release of Slippin’ Away, which featured mostly original material. He followed that the next year with Clear Sailin’, which also included a lot of original material, much of it co-written by Peter Knobler. Now both those albums have been re-issued on a single CD, The Asylum Years. There is no bonus material, but there are new liner notes by Scott Schinder, with snippets from an interview with Chris Hillman.

Slippin’ Away

For his first solo album, Chris Hillman gathered together an excellent group of musicians, many of whom he had worked with before, including Bernie Leadon, Rick Roberts and Al Perkins from The Flying Burrito Brothers. Paul Harris and Joe Lala, who both played with Hillman in the band Manassas, play on most tracks. Also joining this group of players is Steve Cropper on lead guitar for several tracks, along with fellow Booker T & The MGs member Donald “Duck” Dunn on one track. So, yes, a whole lot of talent went into this album. Most of the songs were written by Chris Hillman, with one track by Stephen Stills, a song they both performed in Manassas, and one track by Danny Douma.

This album opens with “Step On Out,” a song that was later covered by the Oak Ridge Boys. It is an easy-going, relaxed, joyful, folk-pop tune, with such a happy sound. “Seems like she’s seen it all before/And what she hasn’t seen, she’s heard of/So keep your secrets hidden/I’ve got my heart out on my sleeve and an eye on the door.” George Terry plays lead guitar on this track, and Steve Cropper is actually on rhythm guitar. That’s followed by “Slippin’ Away,” the album’s title track, with some great laid-back 1970s vibes, reminding me at times of some of Paul Simon’s work from the same period. “And something inside says I’m a fool to stay/The one that you love is slipping away.” Steve Cropper plays lead guitar on this one, and Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan of The Turtles provide some backing vocals.

“Falling Again” has a sweet country flavor, with Al Perkins on pedal steel. What comes as a surprise and changes up that sound a good deal is Albhy Galuten’s work on synthesizer in the second half of the song. “’Cause I’m falling again, falling again/I was blind to the truth/Lost and alone/Searching for someone/Won’t you tell her to please come home.” Then “Take It On The Run” has more of a rock sound, and a silly bit of banter at the beginning. Donnie Dacus plays slide guitar on this track. That’s followed by “Blue Morning,” a mellow and moving tune that features Al Perkins on pedal steel and Donald Dunn on bass. “Down by the river/In a cold, damp room/Watching your life go by/Maybe just a little too soon.”

“Witching Hour” is the track written by Stephen Stills, the song that Hillman and Stills played in their group Manassas in the early seventies. In the liner notes, Hillman indicates that Manassas never recorded it. However, in 2009 a compilation of previously unreleased Manassas tracks titled Pieces was released, and includes a recording of “Witching Hour.” Fellow Manassas members Paul Harris and Joe Lala play on this track, which has more of an edge than most of the other material here. It’s followed by “Down In The Churchyard,” a song that was first recorded by The Flying Burrito Brothers and included on their 1970 LP Burrito Deluxe. This version by Chris Hillman has a different vibe, with more of a reggae feel to the rhythm. My favorite track of this album is its closing track, “(Take Me In Your) Lifeboat,” a wonderful, fun bluegrass tune featuring some excellent vocals. This track features Herb Pedersen on banjo, Byron Berline on fiddle, Bernie Leadon on guitar, Lee Sklar on bass, and Joe Lala on percussion. Chris Hillman plays mandolin on this track.

Clear Sailin’

Clear Sailin’ has a different sound and feel, and features mostly different musicians from the first album. It gets off to a lively, joyful start with “Nothing Gets Through.” And right away the different sound is apparent, with the presence of saxophone. That’s Alan Garth on sax. This track also features some nice work on keys by Skip Edwards. “I’m as reckless as a favorite son/And subtle as a smoking gun/Nothing ventured and nothing won/And nothing lost.” “Nothing Gets Through” was written by Chris Hillman and Peter Knobler, as was the following track, “Fallen Favorite.” I love this line: “They say that people live and learn, but baby you’re just living.” This album has a lot of excellent lyrics. One line that really stands out for me is “You rejected advances that I wasn’t making” from “Lucky In Love.” I’ve been in that position. I once had a girl call me to break up with me, a girl whom I had never asked out. (I later performed an entire stand-up routine about that one woman.) This song is a lot of fun, and features more good work on saxophone. “I’m lucky in love and I’ve left myself open/For romance with a vengeance.” “Lucky In Love” was written by Chris Hillman and Peter Knobler, and is one of my favorite tracks.

The first cover of the album is “Quits,” written by Danny O’Keefe, and originally included on his 1975 record So Long Harry Truman. I love the violin in this Chris Hillman version. This song, too, has some damn good lines, such as “Tell ‘em dreams are flowers and our garden’s bare” and its main line, “Call it what you want/I’ll just call it quits.” Chris Hillman also delivers a really good rendition of “Heartbreaker,” written by David Wolfert and Carole Bayer Sager. This version predates Dolly Parton’s version, which was released the following year. This version is nearly two minutes longer than Dolly’s, with a nice jam at the end. “I truly thought that we were lovers/But now I see you’re just like all the others.” The final cover on this album is “Ain’t That Peculiar,” written by Smokey Robinson, Warren Moore, Marv Tarplin and Robert Rogers, and originally recorded by Marvin Gaye. This version is quite a bit different from the Marvin Gaye version, right from the start. It’s a bit funky, and features saxophone.

The album concludes with its title track, “Clear Sailin’,” which was written by Chris Hillman and Rick Roberts. It features a good, passionate vocal performance. “I feel my life changing with the tide/And the tide changing with the breeze/I hear everybody’s explanation/And nothing that I believe.”

CD Track List
  1. Step On Out
  2. Slippin’ Away
  3. Falling Again
  4. Take It On The Run
  5. Blue Morning
  6. Witching Hour
  7. Down In The Churchyard
  8. Love Is The Sweetest Amnesty
  9. Midnight Again
  10. (Take Me In Your) Lifeboat
  11. Nothing Gets Through
  12. Fallen Favorite
  13. Quits
  14. Hot Dusty Roads
  15. Heartbreaker
  16. Playing The Fool
  17. Lucky In Love
  18. Rollin’ And Tumblin’
  19. Ain’t That Peculiar
  20. Clear Sailin’
The Asylum Years was released on February 9, 2018 through Omnivore Recordings.

David K. Mathews: “The Fantasy Vocal Sessions Vol. 1, Standards” (2018) CD Review

David K. Mathews has played piano and keyboards with a lot of great artists over the years, most notably Tower Of Power, Etta James and Santana. Yes, his resume is impressive. For his new release, The Fantasy Vocal Sessions Vol. 1, Standards, Mathews has recruited the help of several different talented vocalists, including Maria Muldaur, Nicolas Bearde and Amikaeyla Gaston. The band for this release includes David K. Mathews on piano, Jim Nichols on guitar, Peter Barshay on bass and Akira Tana on drums, with Wayne de Silva joining on tenor saxophone for several tracks, and Carl Lockett providing some excellent work on guitar on one track (“When Sunny Gets Blue”).

The album kicks off with “I Want To Talk About You,” written by Billy Eckstine. We could all use a little romance these days, and this music will certainly set the mood, led by David K. Mathews’ light and heartfelt work on piano. Vocalist Nicolas Bearde delivers a wonderful performance here, smooth and passionate and true. And Wayne de Silva’s saxophone speaks clearly of the woman too, a second voice singing her praises. “Because I love you and I want to talk about you.” Nicolas Bearde also provides vocals on a sweet and delightful rendition of “Smile.” “I Want To Talk About You” is followed by “Alfie.” I still haven’t seen Alfie (the play or either film version, actually), but I’ve heard several versions of this song over the years. This one features the touching vocal work of Amikaeyla Gaston (her own story is incredible, so when you get the chance, look her up). The production is decidedly somewhat restrained, so that Amikaeyla’s voice is given the space to shine and really be the focus. Wayne de Silva provides more excellent work on sax.

Peter Barshay begins this rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” on bass, setting a cool tone before the rest of the band comes in. The vocalist on this track is none other than Steve Miller, and it’s great hearing him deliver a jazz performance. I grew up listening to his 1970s rock output and enjoying it. I used to play that Greatest Hits cassette a lot. This track finds him giving a very different performance, and totally nailing it. I need to look into whether he’s put out any other jazz material, because I love how he approaches this song. “I should smile/That’s exactly what I’ll do.” This is an excellent track, with a groovy late-night vibe, and I love Mathews’ work on piano, which is absolutely wonderful. This is certainly one of my favorite tracks on this CD. That’s followed by “Oh Papa,” which features another familiar voice working in a realm somewhat different from that for which she is best known. Maria Muldaur is probably still best known for her hit “Midnight At The Oasis,” though she has thrived in blues and other genres as well (I especially love her work with Jerry Garcia Band in the late 1970s). There is something both sensuous and comforting in her approach to “Oh Papa,” a song that she actually recorded before, including it on her 1974 album Waitress In A Donut Shop. While I like that earlier version, I prefer this new rendition. I love the texture of her performance, and of this track in general. There is some really nice work here. Maria Muldaur also joins David K. Mathews for “Lover Man,” which she also recorded before in her career. This track has a cool vibe right from the start, and features excellent work on piano and a delicious vocal performance, particularly toward the end.

In “Ruby,” there is the line “They say, Ruby, you’re like a song.” It’s an interesting line, as women named Ruby seem to only exist in songs. I don’t believe I’ve ever met a Ruby, but I’ve certainly heard of Ruby in songs like “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town,” “Ruby Tuesday,” “Ruby Baby,” “Ruby’s Shoes” “Rock ‘N’ Roll Ruby” and of course this one, written by Mitchell Parish and Heinz Roemheld. Vocalist Glenn Walters delivers a somewhat gentle, yet passionate rendition. I like how this track doesn’t rush into the sax solo. This entire album, actually, is really good at letting the songs move at their own pace, allowing them to breathe and grow. This track also features good work on guitar by Jim Nichols. Glenn Walters also joins David K. Mathews for “Skylark,” a track that begins with a sweet piano solo. Glenn Walters’ performance has a friendly vibe, both engaging and comforting. This track also features Wayne de Silva on saxophone.

CD Track List
  1. I Want To Talk About You
  2. Alfie
  3. Blue Skies
  4. Oh Papa
  5. Ruby
  6. Smile
  7. When Sunny Gets Blue
  8. Lover Man
  9. Lush Life
  10. The More I See You
  11. We’ll Be Together Again
  12. Skylark
  13. In The Wee Small Hours Of Morning
 The Fantasy Vocal Sessions Vol. 1, Standards was released on February 2, 2018 on Effendi Records.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Great American Music Ensemble: “It’s All In The Game” (2016) CD Review

Does music have the power to lift this country out of the cesspool it has found itself submerged in since the day it allowed a mendacious, incestuous, self-obsessed, delusional, racist, fascist moron to occupy the White House? Maybe. Music can certainly lift the spirits of individuals and groups, so why not raise an entire nation from this dark pit? It’s All In The Game, an absolutely fantastic big band album by The Great American Music Ensemble, should be of help. The album takes familiar tunes and makes them thrilling once again, like they were just written. Directed and arranged by Doug Richards, the music on this disc was recorded in 2001 and features some talented and inspired musicians, as well as vocalist Rene Marie on several tracks.

The disc opens with a very strange, intriguing rendition of “In The Mood,” different from any arrangement or approach I’d heard before, but just as exciting and exuberant, particularly at the end. This will cause you to take a new look at the famous song made popular by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, and gives you an idea of what you’re in for with this outstanding disc. Things then turn romantic and sexy with “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man Of Mine,” with Rene Marie joining the group on vocals. The way she sings “The roof is leaking,” it sounds like something to be desired. This is an interesting rendition, with certain lines delivered a cappella. I love how the instruments not only support Rene Marie, but seem to encourage her. That’s followed by one of my personal favorite tracks, “Clap Yo’ Hands.” As I’ve said on other occasions, you can never go wrong with Gershwin. At the beginning, the instruments have a delightful playfulness, acting sly, like they might hide on you, then suddenly sneak up on you. Rene Marie’s vocals have a devilish quality as well, perfect as she sing about voodoo. And then suddenly we emerge into a brighter party. The music tells us to relax and enjoy ourselves, the danger is over, as we’ve come to some understanding with the darker powers. If not a truce, then a momentary merging of joys. This is wonderful.

The Great American Music Ensemble delivers a beautiful rendition of “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” with Joe Kennedy, Jr. joining the group on violin. His playing is so moving, so effective, so heartfelt. This version has power and beauty, and is tremendous from beginning to end. Joe Kennedy, Jr. also joins the group for “West End Blues,” which follows “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.” This track is ridiculously fun, with a lot of character in the performance. Seriously, there are times when I feel each instrument is a living, breathing, fully fleshed persona, and these voices together create something absolutely fantastic. Joe Kennedy, Jr. delivers more wonderful work on violin, and I love that piano, making me feel like I stepped into a bar in the old west. And those horns, those glorious, sexy horns, raising spirits and roofs and any other damn thing they please.

Rene Marie joins the band again for a sweet version of Cole Porter’s “I Am Loved,” a song from the musical Out Of This World. “I am loved/What a wonderful thing/What a beautiful thing/What a glorious thing/To be able to say.” Indeed! “They All Laughed” comes on strong like a party in full swing. Then it’s like the party pauses a moment while Rene Marie enters, to see what she’ll do. She delivers her first line a cappella, then the party joins her, and things just roll along from there. This is a great song, written by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin, and this is a superb rendition. (By the way, if you haven’t seen the Peter Bogdanovich film They All Laughed, you should check it out.) We get more Gershwin with a sweet, beautiful, tender instrumental rendition of “Embraceable You.” The disc then concludes with a fun, lively medley of Charlie Parker compositions titled “Bird Blue.”

CD Track List
  1. In The Mood
  2. Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man Of Mine
  3. Clap Yo’ Hands
  4. Stardust
  5. When It’s Sleepy Time Down South
  6. West End Blues
  7. I’ve Got The World On A String
  8. I Am Loved
  9. September In The Rain
  10. April In Paris
  11. Cherokee
  12. They All Laughed
  13. Ain’t Misbehavin’
  14. Embraceable You
  15. Bird Blues
It’s All In The Game was released on March 4, 2016 through Jazzed Media.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Nicole Saphos: “Buzz & Bloom” (2018) CD Review

Nicole Saphos is a talented jazz vocalist, composer and bass player, based in Washington, D.C. In 2016, she released her debut full-length CD, Tiptoe. She is now following that up with Buzz & Bloom, an excellent EP featuring all original material. The music here is an interesting mix of jazz and pop and rock other elements, all driven by Nicole’s distinct voice. The trio is made up of Nicole Saphos on bass and vocals, John Lee on guitar, and Ele Rubenstein on drums.

The EP opens with “Phony Flowers,” a quirky, delightful song powered by Nicole’s unusual and endearing voice, and her interesting phrasing. This track features a strong rhythm, and nice work on guitar, particularly during the instrumental section. That section becomes a good jam, then suddenly gives way to the next vocal section and its lighter vibe. That’s followed by “Desert Island Song,” which begins with just bass. This one too has an unusual rhythm, particularly in the vocal line, which draws me in. I am captivated by her voice, and I love the use of backing vocals on this track (which I believe are also performed by Nicole – my copy of the CD contains no liner notes, so I can’t be certain). Those backing vocals are beautiful. This is a song that I love more each time I listen to it. “Soon everything will be just fine/Upon my desert island/We’ll have no worries or cares/Yes, we will be living high/Upon my desert island/’Til something spoils the air.” This one also has a good jam, with more cool stuff on guitar. This track fades out at the end during another good jam, and I’m curious where that jam would have gone. I need to see this trio perform live at some point.

“My Old Tune” has a quieter, mellower feel, with a classic, old-time vibe and sound in the vocals, fitting with the song’s title. “To my one and only tried and true/Oh, my old tune.” This track features some impressive work on guitar. “Spin Of The Wheel, Tick Of The Wind” makes excellent use of backing vocals to offset the unusual main vocal line, creating a strong contrast. I also dig the loose rhythm of this track. “Mirror, mirror on my wall/Won’t you show me something to make sense of it all/’Cause I’m moving in circles, I’m chasing my tail/Endlessly searching, but to no avail.” Then drums kick off “Train To Caen,” the kind of rhythm that could easily lead to a big band tune. The bass then comes in, and it sounds very cool. Then when the song really kicks in, it comes as something of a surprise. I wasn’t expecting the direction it took. But, of course, this entire disc has a wonderfully different approach, the music having its own sensibilities and structure. This song turns out to be a delightful love song. “I would get stuck anywhere with you/There’s no one I’d rather stick to.” There is a great section of just bass and drums to conclude this tune. “Train To Caen” is followed by “Buzz & Bloom,” the CD’s title track, the drum work at times reminding me of Princess Frank’s work with Holland Greco. The EP then concludes with a reprise of “My Old Tune.” But it is actually quite a different approach to the song, with a different rhythm and pace, and more of a country style to the guitar playing.

CD Track List
  1. Phony Flowers
  2. Desert Island Song
  3. My Old Tune
  4. Spin Of The Wheel, Tick Of The Wind
  5. Train To Caen
  6. Buzz & Bloom
  7. My Old Tune (Reprise) 
Buzz & Bloom is scheduled to be released on CD on March 30, 2018 through Local Woman Records. It will also get a vinyl release on May 4th.

Thor: “Electric Eyes” (2018) CD Review

Electric Eyes is an album that Thor recorded in 1979, intended to be the follow-up to the hard rock band’s first LP, Keep The Dogs Away. For one reason or another, it was left unreleased until now. Of everything I’ve heard from Thor, Electric Eyes is my favorite album. It has more of a raw, straightforward rock sound than other material I’ve heard (admittedly, I haven’t listened to Thor’s entire catalogue). It features mostly original material, written or co-written by Jon Mikl Thor, with just one cover, a good rendition of The Troggs’ “Wild Thing.”

Electric Eyes opens with “Special Flight,” a seriously good rock number with a steady driving rhythm. It begins with a jam, and I love the way it builds before the vocals come in. There is a bit of punk to its sound, and a bit of glam. Basically, it has everything you could want from a late 1970s rock tune. Oh, those innocent times. “We’re not trying to be rough/We’re not trying to be tough/We just want to have fun/So grab all the girls, lift up their dresses/Have some fun in the sun.” I particularly dig that bass. That’s followed by “She’s A Fancy Lady,” a fun rockin’ tune with a strong rhythm. And speaking of glam, this song refers to “All The Young Dudes” in the line “All the young dudes just sit and stare.” I grew up listening to a lot of music like this, and don’t listen to enough of it now. This is a treat, and is one of my favorite tracks. It brings me back to my early childhood.

“Interception” reminds me just a bit of Heart’s “Barracuda” at moments, with that rhythm on guitar. The song fades out just as it seems to be building, which is an interesting effect. That’s followed by the album’s only cover, The Troggs’ “Wild Thing,” which has a raw feel and a playfulness, both of which are totally fitting. There is also some good work on guitar. It’s an all-round good rendition, and it too includes an unusual fade-out at the end, with the instruments sounding like they fade out faster than the vocals. Sure, the album’s title track, “Electric Eyes,” is a bit goofy, with the lines “Electric eyes, those laser eyes/You must beware those lightning eyes,” but I’m already fully on board, and ready to go wherever this album takes me. And it features more good work on guitar.

“Twitch (Let’s Go)” is one of my favorites. It immediately establishes a rhythm to get you on your feet, and has a bit of punk to its sound, as well as some playful backing vocals. “Oh, I want to kiss you (Kiss you)/Oh, I want to squeeze you (Squeeze you).” It’s a totally enjoyable rock song. Another of the disc’s highlights is “Poison,” a song I love right from the start. It’s a joyful, fun hard rock song, with just enough pop to make it one to get you dancing. This sound really takes me back to a time when the world made a little more sense, when problems could be solved in the length of a song. Songs like “Twitch” and “Poison” make this album worth picking up. Then, with a title like “Gladiator Romp,” you know the disc’s closing number is going to be fun. It has something of a theatrical element in the vocals, the way certain lines are delivered.

CD Track List
  1. Special Flight
  2. She’s A Fancy Lady
  3. Interception
  4. Wild Thing
  5. Electric Eyes
  6. Twitch (Let’s Go)
  7. Storm
  8. Poison
  9. The Door (Face Behind My Mask)
  10. Gladiator Romp
Electric Eyes was released on January 26, 2018 through Deadline Music, a division of Cleopatra Records.