Friday, December 6, 2019

Grateful Dead: “Ready Or Not” (2019) CD Review

The Grateful Dead released their final studio album, Built To Last, in 1989. In the six years that followed, before Jerry Garcia’s death put an end to everything, the band continued to write and perform new material. We kept waiting for another studio release. But it never came. However, with the release of Ready Or Not, a live album featuring some of that material, we get an idea of what that release might have been like. It features live performances of nine songs from 1992 to 1995. Surprisingly, it contains no Phil Lesh songs, though he contributed several tunes to the band’s repertoire during that time, such as “Wave To The Wind,” “If The Shoe Fits” and “Childhood’s End.”

This album opens with the last song I ever saw the Grateful Dead perform, “Liberty.” It was the encore at the May 29, 1995 show in Portland, Oregon, where I saw Jerry Garcia for the final time. It was also the encore on October 14, 1994, the recording included here. The tune has such a fun groove, one to keep everyone dancing. Jerry’s voice sounds pretty damn good here, which was not always the case in 1994. “I’m gonna find my own way home” were the last words I ever heard Jerry sing, and he puts some power and emotion behind that line in this rendition. “Liberty” is followed by “Eternity,” a seriously cool, jazzy tune that Bob Weir wrote with Rob Wasserman and Willie Dixon (must have been one of the last things Dixon had a hand in writing). This was one of my favorites among the new songs at the time. It was so different from the rest of the band’s repertoire, and could be exciting and provide the space for the band to do some interesting exploring, as they do in the version included here from April 2, 1995. I dig Vince’s work on keys. And Jerry finds some unusual places to take us during the jam. It’s a wonderful rendition. But probably my favorite of all the new songs was “Lazy River Road,” and the version included here from March 25, 1993 has that sweet sad sound I loved so much, and still do love. Jerry’s voice sounds fantastic here. There is something so endearing, so timeless, so meaningful about this song, and it was more like a folk number than the other new material the band was introducing at the time. It was a song I loved immediately, a perfect song for Jerry to deliver. This track is certainly a highlight for me.

After Brent Mydland’s death in the summer of 1990, Vince Welnick took over on keys. He brought some interesting choices of covers for the band to perform, and two originals. Both originals are included on this album. The first is “Samba In The Rain” (the first on the album, that is, not the first he introduced). This was another unusual one for the band, not a favorite of mine, and lyrically a bit weak, but one that was certainly fun to dance to. And it was somehow even more fun when it actually was raining. The version here from March 30, 1995 features a seriously cool jam. The most beautiful and moving of the songs chosen for this release is “So Many Roads,” and this version from June 23, 1992 features some sweet stuff from Jerry both vocally and on guitar. The backing vocals likewise sound sweet and soulful. And the finale of this version is absolutely glorious, making this probably the disc’s best track. “So many roads I know/All I need is one to take me home.”

That’s followed by the first of the two songs that Vince introduced, “Way To Go Home.” I remember being excited the first time I saw the band perform this one, and fans took to it initially, but then it got a bit overplayed. Still, it is one I get in my head fairly often, especially when I am stuck in Los Angeles traffic trying to get home. “It’s a long, long, long, long way to go home.” This version is from June 28, 1992, and features some good vocal work. “Corrina” is one with such a delicious rhythm that we couldn’t help but get into it. We were dancing too wildly to pay much attention to the lyrics. However, the lyrics to this song do provide this collection with its title. “Fade on a downbeat/Ready or not, ready or not.” Interestingly, the version included here is from October 14, 1994, the same show that gives us “Liberty.” That is the only show to be represented twice in this collection. It’s a good long “Corrina,” with some fun jamming.

There are only two Grateful Dead songs that I actually didn’t like back in the day, and both are included here. The first of those is “Easy Answers,” which I remember thinking was lame the first time I saw the band perform it. I’ve seen Bob Weir perform it more recently, and felt a bit kinder toward it then. Listening to this version from September 13, 1993, I remember what I disliked about it. The backing vocals repeating “Easy answers” are awful. This collection then concludes with the song I least enjoyed of all the Grateful Dead’s material, “Days Between.” And, yes, I know I’m in the minority here, but this song always bothered me. Lyrically, it’s fine, I suppose. But musically I find it incredibly frustrating. It builds and builds and never gets anywhere. It feels unfinished. I expect it to break out to some higher plateau, but it just never does. This was particularly irritating when I was tripping. I wanted the song to get somewhere, needed it to. Coincidentally, this track is the only one from this disc that I actually saw the band perform. I attended those four shows in Oakland in December of 1994, and they were the only shows at which I managed to get backstage. Because I was there, I’m glad to have this song released officially. And it does have a passionate vocal performance by Jerry, plus some powerful moments, no question about it.

CD Track List
  1. Liberty
  2. Eternity
  3. Lazy River Road
  4. Samba In The Rain
  5. So Many Roads
  6. Way To Go Home
  7. Corrina
  8. Easy Answers
  9. Days Between 
Ready Or Not was released on November 22, 2019.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Rainbow Star: “Music From The Rainbow Sparkle Palace: Vol. II” (2019) CD Review

A year ago I was turned onto an artist named Rainbow Star when she released an album titled Music From The Rainbow Sparkle Palace: Volume 1, a title which seemed to promise at least one follow-up. Well, that follow-up has arrived. Titled appropriately enough Music From The Rainbow Sparkle Palace: Vol. II, this disc contains all original material written and performed by Rainbow Star. Like the previous album, this one is largely a solo effort, with Rainbow performing the vocals and playing guitar, ukulele, banjo dulcimer, mountain dulcimer and chimes. In fact, she is joined by only one other musician, and only on one track. And as on the previous album, Rainbow Star addresses some serious subjects. The music this time around has more of an edge, with some angrier tones, a raw mix of punk and folk that seems to reflect the way many of us are feeling these days, in reaction to the news and the ongoing disaster in the White House and beyond. Several of these songs have a strong feminist bent, something that seems more and more important in our current political and social realms.

The album opens with “Morning At The Palace/Slow,” which begins with some soft sounds of nature, easing into the day. Then, after forty-five seconds or so, Rainbow Star begins some strumming on acoustic guitar, going into “Slow,” a song that was also included on her live album, Live At Cowan Chapel. There is a decidedly lo-fi sound to the vocals, like we are in her bedroom as she gets up and plays us this song, even speaking one line, “And I don’t have health insurance.” And because of that intimate quality to the sound, it feels like she is laying herself bare for us as she sings, “It’s just me battling my ego, just/Afraid of who I am and who you might be/And who you might think that I am.” She follows that with “Sunflowers.” Of course, any mention of sunflowers makes me think of Harold And Maude, my favorite film. The opening line, however, “I don’t care for sunflowers anymore,” reminds me that someone recently cut down the gorgeous sunflowers growing alongside the road a block from my apartment. I loved looking at those flowers whenever I passed by, which was often. Anyway, the line “Fuck you,” and the way she delivers it, came as such a surprise the first time I listened to this disc that I burst out laughing. “All the lies and the lies and the lies.” All the tracks on this album have an honest and candid ring to them, and though the lyrics are serious, because they feel so true there is a humor to them as well. For example, check out the opening lines of “Dopamine”: “Dopamine, don’t be mean/You know I’ll never really have that boy.”

There is something sweet and endearing about the sound of “(Wo) Mansplain,” which works in wonderful contrast to the lyrics. It is certainly in part the use of ukulele, which has a friendly, almost cute sound sometimes. And, before you ask, yes, I hate non-words like “mansplain,” and tend to bristle whenever I hear someone utter one (“guesstimate” is another that drives me crazy), but Rainbow Star is clearly playing on the ridiculousness of it, and reacting to the idea of a man speaking condescendingly. Check out these lines: “I really like to/Interrupt a man/Every chance I can/It’s very satisfying/I really like to show ‘em who’s boss/Who brought you into the world/Who’ll take you out of it/Out of it/Faster than you can say/White supremacy/And patriarchy.” This is a very cool song. And then check out these lines from “Happy”: “Things might be different/If I could find a metaphor for/Our tragic love/But like a highly anticipated pregnancy/Dead on arrival.”

“Happy” is followed by “Letters.” I should mention here that the track list on the back of the CD case isn’t completely correct, with a few songs listed in the wrong order. Anyway, regarding “Letters,” I particularly love this one as it nears its conclusion. Some of the lyrics catch me by surprise, and it ends with a spoken word part that is really effective. It’s like her emotion carries her away to the point where she can’t contain it in song anymore and just flat-out says what she wanted to say, something you don’t often find on an album. Rainbow Star follows that with a pretty and serious song, “Didn’t Nobody Come,” which feels like a traditional folk song. She then turns to the subject of men again with “Patriarchy Song,” a powerful track. I love that she doesn’t hold back, though to my ears, there is humor to it as well. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “It must be nice to be a guy/All of your anger justified/Get to do whatever you want/Nobody callin' you a – /It must be nice to be a man.” And check out these lines: “You're such a feminist that you'd break your vow of celibacy/Because the gods told you to penetrate me/It's not sex, it's just Tantric healing/My womb chakra needs some clearing.” Rainbow Star plays banjo dulcimer on this track.

On “Tarot” Rainbow Star is joined by Katie Gardner on cello, an instrument I always appreciate hearing. I love what she adds to this song. There is a darker tone to this one. “I don’t need to read no tarot/To know/This is going nowhere.” Things then get a bit lighter again with “Texas Oil Rig,” because of the presence of ukulele. “I chained myself to a Texas oil rig/I thought I could save the world/With all the love in my heart/For something so destructive.” The lyrics of “Bottles” speak of dreaming, and the song itself has something of dark, haunted, dreamlike quality, with deep tones on her guitar and certain words stretched. That’s followed by “Fairy Tales,” which returns to the image of a tarot reading in its opening lines. “We read your tarot/And we got it fuckin’ backwards/Put your future in the past/So it looked like you were not to fall in love with me.” Again, I love the humor to lines like those. Rainbow Star plays mountain dulcimer on this track.

Rainbow returns to ukulele on “Rachelcat” and mentions the instrument in the lyrics: “She taught me how to play ukulele like this/But she didn’t wanna take credit.” This is a song about friendship, celebrating it really. The lines that stand out for me are these: “She’s the most stellar listener I’ve ever met/And I’m tellin’ you, that’s quite a skill these days.” It’s also the way she delivers those lines, the second one almost as an aside. And I appreciate these lines: “I’m grateful to have a true friend in this world/It’s really hard to find/And everyone knows I don’t really like that many people/‘Cause most of them are shitty.” Then the first lines of “Angels” seem to be a play on Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy. “To go or not to go/Is the question I ought to know.” She begins “Amigod” by asking “What happens when you give up and you don’t want to fight no more?” This song is full of questions and questioning. Even the song’s title is a question. Though written as “Amigod,” what she sings is “Am I God?” “I have to ask why, I have to ask why/I have to ask why when I see my brothers, sisters hurting/I have to ask why when I see my mother hurting/I have to ask why when I see my whole planet hurting.” Indeed. The album then concludes with “Evening At The Palace/Berea Reprise,” which begins with the sounds of evening, insects and so on. This goes on much longer than necessary; it is nearly five minutes before Rainbow’s voice comes in. I love this album but I would have cut this. Ten or fifteen seconds would have sufficed. What she sings here is the chorus of “Berea,” a song from Music From The Rainbow Sparkle Palace: Volume 1. It’s interesting that she chooses a reprise of a song from the earlier album, not this one. Then the sounds of night take over once again. This track should be one or two minutes, but is nearly thirteen (and apparently on the digital release, it’s even longer).

CD Track List
  1. Morning At The Palace/Slow
  2. Sunflowers
  3. Dopamine
  4. (Wo) Mansplain
  5. Happy
  6. Letters
  7. Didn’t Nobody Come
  8. Patriarchy Song
  9. Tarot
  10. Texas Oil Rig
  11. Bottles
  12. Fairy Tales
  13. Rachelcat
  14. Angels
  15. Amigod
  16. Evening At The Palace/Berea Reprise
Music From The Rainbow Sparkle Palace: Vol. II was released on September 27, 2019.

Rae Gordon Band: “Wrong Kind Of Love” (2019) CD Review

Wrong Kind Of Love, the new release from Rae Gordon Band, is full of good grooves, powerful and soulful vocal performances, and some bloody great work from the horn section. If you are looking for some blues-based music to make you rise from your seat and shout “Hell yeah,” you are going to want to pick up a copy of this album. It features original material, most of it written or co-written by keyboardist Pat McDougall. The band is made up of Rae Gordon on lead vocals, Pat McDougall on keys and vocals, Kivett Bednar on guitar and vocals (Bednar also produced the album), Joseph Conrad on bass, Ed Pierce on drums, Allan Kalik on trumpet, and Scott Franklin on saxophone.

The disc gets off to a great start with “Comin’ Back For More,” a tune with a delicious groove and a positive sound. And when Rae Gordon begins belting out the lines, the power of her voice is exciting, intoxicating. “I just want to get next to you/Nothing else will do/If you’re going to put me out/I swear I’m going to scream and shout/So don’t you lock that door/I’m only comin’ back for more.” And with the horns responding and adding their support, how could things be better? This is tremendous fun. The positive vibes continue with “Don’t Look Now,” and you will find yourself smiling even as she sings “Don’t look now/Your ship’s starting to sink.” This woman is here to kick ass and put you in your place. And oh man, I totally love those backing vocals, which came as a delightful surprise the first time I heard this track, echoing “Don’t” and then “Look now.” When Rae Gordon sings “Now don’t you worry about me,” well, I don’t think there is any danger of anyone doing that. This is a person who can certainly take care of herself. What a voice! And I really like that work on keys in the second half of the track. This band is grooving and moving.

Rae Gordon delivers a soulful vocal performance on “How You Gonna,” a gorgeous slower number. That moment when the horns come in to create a full sound is wonderful. “How you gonna tell me, tell me she’s better for you/How can you say it’s better for me too?” This track also features more good stuff on keys. “How you gonna tell me, tell me there ain’t no other way/How you gonna tell me, tell me that I’ll be okay/How you gonna tell me you won’t walk through my front door/Like you did a thousand times before.” Then “Might As Well Be You” comes on strong, like a party bursting into your home to show you a good time. “Just buy me one more drink and then it might as well be you.” Ah, a declaration of true love, that. There is some great energy to this tune.

“Sea Of Blue,” written by Rod Furlott, begins with a cool, slow groove, with delicious work on organ over it. Rae Gordon’s vocals come in after a minute or so. She addresses a love that is gone, asking “Baby, baby, baby, baby, why did you have to go/And leave me to drown in this deep dark sea of blue?” This person is so vivid to her, so clear, that we feel he is in the room with us. The electric guitar shares her lament in its lead section, calling out to this person too, to the point where an answer would not be entirely surprising. And perhaps that strange ending is some sort of answer, a wave drifting in. The next track, “Wrong Kind Of Love,” then begins with something similar to that ending, but soon tears open to become a lively number with some great stuff on horns and of course another strong vocal performance, the power behind that voice threatening to burst from our speakers and rip right into us.  And, you know, I doubt anyone would mind the ensuing carnage.

“How Much I Love You So” is a wonderful slow dance, a song to make you sway with your baby. An honest and sweet love song. “I wish I was a poet, baby/So I could tell you how I feel/How to write you a sonnet, maybe/Show you my love is real/I try to put it down on paper/But it sounds so insincere/How can I put into words/The way I feel when you are near.” That’s followed by “Got To Have You,” which has a more somber tone, those horns paving the way for Rae’s vocals. This is a darker love song, with Rae Gordon singing, “What is the use/Nothing I can do/To stop myself from loving you/I try to hold back/I try to be strong/One look from you and my will is gone.” I love that trumpet, which for me is the heart of this track.

“Last Call” is a fun, jaunty number about that special time of the night when the bars are ready to kick out their patrons, and she is likewise ready to end her relationship. “Well, I’d rather be alone/Than stuck with someone like you/So it’s last call for alcohol/And last call for you too.” She continues the metaphor with lines like “The taps have run dry” and “Turn off the ‘Open’ sign.” She gives us a delicious vocal performance, but for me the horns are really what make this track stand out. We are treated to wonderful leads on both saxophone and trumpet. Oh yes! Toward the end, Rae Gordon takes that familiar bartender line and applies it to her man: “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” This track was written by Rae Gordon and Pat McDougall. The album then concludes with “Get Right With The World.” There is more than a bit of rock to this tune, and it features a cool bass line and a great, driving drum beat. “If you feel a deep dissatisfaction/The time has come to take action/Don’t be afraid to turn the page.” I think a lot of people are feeling a deep dissatisfaction these days, and need a call to action. “Boys, make room for the girls.” Hell yes, it is time for some female energy, particularly in the White House, don’t you think? I love that spirited playing on keys.

CD Track List
  1. Comin’ Back For More
  2. Don’t Look Now
  3. How You Gonna
  4. Might As Well Be You
  5. Sea Of Blue
  6. Wrong Kind Of Love
  7. How Much I Love You So
  8. Got To Have You
  9. Last Call
  10. Get Right With The World
Wrong Kind Of Love was released on December 3, 2019.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Patsy Thompson: “I Think About You” (2019) Vinyl Single Review

Singer and songwriter Patsy Thompson has a new album in the works. Due out in February, it is titled Fabulous Day. In time for the holidays, however, she is releasing the first single from the album, “I Think About You.” Patsy Thompson is from Canada, but spent the last fifteen years in Texas, and her time there certainly influenced her sound. She recorded several albums there, including Live In Texas. She is now back in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her new single features two original songs that she co-wrote, both to be included on her upcoming full-length release.

If you are looking for a good new Christmas song to play this holiday season, you should certainly check out “I Think About You,” the single’s A side. It is a sweet song with a full, bright country sound, and it features some nice work on fiddle. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “When the snow’s falling outside my window/I think about you (I think about you)/I think about you/When that mistletoe is hanging in the doorway/I think about you (I think about you)/I think about you.” Yes, it is about missing someone during the holiday, but it has an upbeat, cheerful feel. Nothing to get you down. The single’s flip side, “Dreamin’,” is a good choice to pair with “I Think About You,” for it shares some thematic elements. “And when I think of you/Grey skies all turn blue.” This is an enjoyable and pretty love song, with an endearing vocal performance. “I’m dreamin’/You got me dreamin’/Sweet, crazy feeling.” A couple of lines toward the end are spoken in an intimate near-whisper, reminding me of some songs I heard in my youth, a nice surprise.

Record Track List

Side A
  1. I Think About You
Side B
  1. Dreamin’
I Think About You is available on both vinyl and CD.

Rebekah Meldrum: “Rebekah Meldrum” (2019) CD Review

Rebekah Meldrum is a vocalist and songwriter based in Indianapolis, living and breathing the blues, and giving us all a taste of her world, of her talent, on her excellent self-titled debut studio release. This album features all original music, written by Rebekah Meldrum and guitarist Paul Holdman. The band also includes David Murray on bass, Kevin Kouts on drums, P.J. Yinger on trumpet, Richard Dole on trombone, Patrick Long on harmonica, and Tad Robinson on harmonica and vocals. The CD artwork mimics a worn record sleeve, which is fitting, as this music does have something of a classic vibe to it. A few of these songs were also included on Live At The Slippery Noodle, a 2016 live album from Rebekah Meldrum & Paul Holdman.

The album opens with “Set Your Soul Free.” From the moment that blues harmonica begins to wail, like sixteen seconds into the track, I’m completely on board. That’s Tad Robinson on harmonica. And though this track uses that awful “self”/“shelf” rhyme, it’s a damn good tune, featuring a raw and powerful vocal performance to match that harmonica. Plus, it has a great, mean groove. “Take a good look inside/Find your purpose/Sit back, relax/And enjoy the ride.” Well, all right! Rebekah follows that with “Whiskey And Wine,” which has an easygoing groove with a bit of a cool jazzy vibe to it. “Some will say I’m upset/Some say that I’m a mess/Go on and place your bets.” Then that harmonica rises above the groove, blowing gloriously during that instrumental section. That is Tad Robinson again on harmonica. I also really dig the guitar work during the jam toward the end. “Mind your business/Mind your time/Mind your manners/Honey, I’ll try to mind mine/Mind your business/And you’ll see/This song ain’t about you/It’s about me.”

Possibly the best vocal performance on this album is on “Far Away,” a beautiful and moving track. It would be difficult to remain unaffected by the emotion and power behind her voice as she sings “Doesn’t matter which direction it came from/As long as it takes me far away/Away from the pain of this place.” This is a soulful performance. There is also more good work on harmonica, this time from Patrick Long. “Just give me that open road/So I can find myself/After all, isn’t that the meaning of life/In and of itself.” That’s followed by “Ain’t Thinking ‘Bout You,” which begins with a good groove. I love that bass line. This track is a lot of fun, and there is a glorious section of vocals and bass, with finger snaps. There is also plenty of delicious stuff on guitar, and a great beat. All that, plus – yes – more good work on harmonica (it’s Tad Robinson on this track). “I don’t take it back, I don’t apologize/I am who I am, you’d better recognize.” Amen.

“Gypsy” has a classic, timeless sound that is appealing. This is a song that was included on Live At The Slippery Noodle. “Her neighbors all think she’s gone crazy/Oh, but she’s doing just fine.” Then “Coat Tails” quickly establishes a fun, bright groove and vibe to get you moving. This one too was included on Live At The Slippery Noodle. “Her daddy always told her, don’t put a limit on your dreams.” That’s followed by “I’m Here,” a comforting, beautiful song that seems to reach out a hand to us. “Lay your burden down before you drown.” On this track, Rebekah is joined on vocals by Tad Robinson, who delivers a good, soulful performance. Then the horn section gives the track something of a New Orleans feel. Yup, this one just gets better and better, and is a wonderful way to conclude the album.

CD Track List
  1. Set Your Soul Free
  2. Whiskey And Wine
  3. Far Away
  4. Ain’t Thinking ‘Bout You
  5. Gypsy
  6. Coat Tails
  7. I’m Here 
Rebekah Meldrum was released on October 25, 2019, and is available both on CD and vinyl.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Laura Noejovich: “Laura Has New Standards” (2019) CD Review

I appreciate the playfulness of the title of jazz vocalist Laura Noejovich’s debut album, Laura Has New Standards. She does tackle classic standards on this album, including a couple of Gershwin songs, but many of the songs she chooses to cover are more recent numbers; thus, the “new” of New Standards. On this disc she is accompanied only by Takeshi Asai on piano, which shows the confidence she has in her voice. After all, there is no band backing her, taking some of the responsibility, some of the focus. And she is certainly right to be confident in her vocal talent. You can hear it right from the beginning of the album’s opening track, a sexy, seductive rendition of the blues tune “Why Don’t You Do Right,” which she starts a cappella. She has you in her grip before the piano even comes in. This is a seriously good version of this song, different from most versions I’ve heard, and features some really nice work on piano. That’s followed by “Misty,” a standard that has been recorded by a diverse group of artists over the years. Takeshi Asai begins this rendition on piano. Laura’s approach to this one has a wonderful youthful quality, and is quite pretty, with some impressive moments, as when she sings the lines “Can’t you see that you’re leading me on/And it’s just what I want you to do.”

There aren’t a whole lot of musicals that I truly love, but Chicago is certainly one of them, in large part because the songs are so damn good. On this album Laura Noejovich performs “Funny Honey,” and does an excellent job with it, getting into the character. (In the film version, it is sung by RenĂ©e Zellweger.) That’s followed by “The Fool On The Hill,” a song from Magical Mystery Tour. Could it be a new standard? It has been covered by a lot of artists (though not nearly as many as “Yesterday”). It was never one of my favorite Beatles songs, but Laura’s take on this song is kind of compelling. She follows that with “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” from The Wizard Of Oz. I’ve heard a lot of renditions of this song over the years, but Laura approaches it with a youthful energy that keeps it fresh.

I’ve said it many times, but it remains true: you can never go wrong with Gershwin. Laura chooses two Gershwin songs to cover on this album. The first is “Someone To Watch Over Me,” one of my personal favorites, and one that gets in my head quite often.  Laura’s voice is incredibly expressive and appealing, and there are moments here when her voice is simply gorgeous. On this track, she gives us something a bit different from the other tracks. The second Gershwin song included on this album is “Summertime,” another excellent choice. Takeshi Asai begins this track with some pretty work on piano. Asai then develops an interesting groove at one point, changing the tone, with Laura right in step with the change. The song takes on more power, more energy, more verve. Then we are treated to a fun, wonderful piano solo toward the end. Ah, so good.

One of the most interesting song choices on this album is Queen’s “Dreamer’s Ball,” written by Brian May and included on the band’s 1978 LP Jazz. Queen is a band that has never really lost its popularity, but these days seems to be in the public mind more than usual because of the film Bohemian Rhapsody. That movie is mediocre at best, but the music is great. Anyway, Laura Noejovich delivers a completely enjoyable rendition of “Dreamer’s Ball.” Wouldn’t it be great if that song became a standard? She also delivers a pretty rendition of “Somewhere Out There,” a song from the animated movie An American Tail (I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that one). Laura Noejovich concludes her debut release with “When You Wish Upon A Star,” her voice sounding beautiful and bright and friendly, everything you’d want from a performance of this song.

CD Track List
  1. Why Don’t You Do Right
  2. Misty
  3. Funny Honey
  4. The Fool On The Hill
  5. Somewhere Over The Rainbow
  6. Someone To Watch Over Me
  7. Dreamer’s Ball
  8. Once Upon A Dream
  9. On My Own
  10. Summertime
  11. Somewhere Out There
  12. I’m Not That Girl
  13. Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again
  14. When You Wish Upon A Star
Laura Has New Standards was released on November 2, 2019 on Enchanted Meadow Records.

Jimmy “Duck” Holmes: “Cypress Grove” (2019) CD Review

Do you have the blues these days? You are not alone. The entire country is gripped in some twisted nightmare, with the humorless scoundrels having taken hold of the reins and driven the nation into darkness. Perhaps for this reason the blues are speaking more strongly to us. Of course, whatever the circumstances, blues as good as that put out by Jimmy “Duck” Holmes would speak strongly to us. At the age of 72, this Mississippi blues man is still cooking. His new album, Cypress Grove, features a mix of original material and classic blues covers, with an excellent raw power. The album was produced by Dan Auerbach, the vocalist and guitarist for The Black Keys, and he also plays guitar on most of the tracks. The other musicians backing Jimmy “Duck” Holmes on this release include Eric Deaton on bass, and Sam Bacco on drums, along with a couple of special guests on certain tracks.

Jimmy “Duck” Holmes starts the album with a solo piece, “Hard Times,” a different take on “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” a tune written by Skip James It has a deliciously raw sound that is undeniably powerful. This is pure blues, just voice and guitar, a wonderful way to get things going, to pull us in and put us in the right frame of my mind. The rhythm section then comes in on “Cypress Grove,” the album’s title track, which was also written by Skip James. Eric Deaton and Sam Bacco set the groove for Jimmy, who then comes in to tell us, “I’d rather be dead/Dead in some old cypress grove/I’d rather be dead/Dead in some old cypress grove/Than to have a woman I can’t control.”

The first track to include Dan Auerbach is “Catfish Blues,” and on it he delivers some excellent stuff on electric guitar, including a cool lead section in the second half of the song that has just the right amount of fuzz. “I don’t want to be no crawfish/And I don’t want to be no, no bullfrog/If I can’t be a catfish/I don’t want to be no fish at all.” That’s followed by a good rendition of “Goin’ Away Baby” that has a cool, groovy vibe and something of a late 1960s blues feel. He sounds earnest, serious, as he sings “If you don’t want me, please don’t dog me around/If you don’t want me, woman, please don’t dog me around.” This track features more exciting work on electric guitar toward the end. We are then treated to a cover of Muddy Waters’ “Rock Me,” which has a steady rhythm that moves ahead, unimpeded. This track features three guitarists – Jimmy Holmes, Dan Auerbach and Marcus King – so you can be sure there is some delicious stuff on guitar.

Jimmy “Duck” Holmes delivers an interesting rendition of Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster.” It starts off loose, like the band is just warming up, getting started. I learned about a lot of great music through my passion for the Grateful Dead, and this is one of those songs. They played it fairly often. I love the use of saxophone on this rendition, and the way it leads the band into a cool jam at the end. That’s Leon Michels on sax. That’s followed by “Devil Got My Woman,” which has more of a raw, back porch vibe. This one is performed by the trio of Holmes, Deaton and Bacco. And Jimmy Holmes gives a seriously good vocal performance here. “I said come back baby, please come back baby/Try me one more time/I know it wasn’t nothing but the devil/Made you change your mind.” He also delivers some absolutely wonderful work on guitar. This song interestingly has the lines about trying to get some rest that I mostly associate with “I Know You Rider”: “Lay down last night/Yes, I lay down last night, lay down last night/Trying to get my rest/But you know my mind, my mind got to rambling/Like the wild geese from the west.”  And actually those are the last lines of this version.

“All Night Long” has something of an improvised feel, taking a moment to come together at the beginning. This is the first of the album’s original numbers, written by Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, and is a song he is revisiting, having used it as the title track to an earlier release as well as on the album Ain’t It Lonesome. Marcus King joins him on guitar on this track. “All Night Long” is followed by another of Jimmy’s original compositions, “Gonna Get Old Someday.” It’s interesting that he chose to put all the original numbers at the end rather than placing them throughout the album. “If you keep on living/Man, you’re going to get old/You’re going to get old someday.” And yeah, there is some humor to a man in his seventies singing about getting old someday, but this song is playful through and through. “Yes, I said I was going to stop drinking/And I was going to stop running around.” This is a song that Holmes had recorded earlier, using it as the title track to his 2008 LP. Is he speaking from experience when he sings “You’re gonna wake up one morning, one morning/And you can’t do the things you used to do”? I don’t know. Based on this music, he seems capable of whatever he wants to do.

“Train Train” is a song that has some things in common with “Mystery Train.” Jimmy Holmes had recorded this one earlier as well, including it on All Night Long. The album then concludes with “Two Women,” another original tune, this one about a man who has both a large woman and a tiny woman. “Yeah, they tell me, they tell me my woman been hanging around, hanging around, hanging around the county jail/Tell me she makes a whole lot of money going from cell to cell to cell.” Which woman is he referring to here, I wonder. Perhaps it’s the tiny woman, for Jimmy then sings that the big woman tells him, “What I’m gonna do for you, Jimmy Duck, I swear I wouldn’t do for nobody else.”

CD Track List
  1. Hard Times
  2. Cypress Grove
  3. Catfish Blues
  4. Goin’ Away Baby
  5. Rock Me
  6. Little Red Rooster
  7. Devil Got My Woman
  8. All Night Long
  9. Gonna Get Old Someday
  10. Train Train
  11. Two Women 
Cypress Grove was released on October 18, 2019 through Easy Eye Sound.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Warren Storm: “Taking The World, By Storm” (2019) CD Review

Warren “Storm” Schexnider is a wonderful force out of Louisiana, and has been recording excellent music since the 1950s. At age 82, he is still doing what he does best. His new album, Taking The World, By Storm, finds him revisiting some material he recorded earlier in his career, and proving he still has the vocal power and flair to make these songs work. Seriously, there are some fantastic vocal performances on this album. The band backing Warren “Storm” Schexnider includes Eric Adcock on piano, Roddie Romero on electric guitar, Derek Huston on saxophone, Chris French on upright bass, and Gary Usie on drums. There are also a few guest musicians and vocalists on certain tracks.

The album opens with “Long As I Can See The Light,” one of my absolute favorite CCR songs (second in my mind only to “Someday Never Comes”). It’s an interesting choice to open the album, for it has always felt more like a late-night tune to me, something to play toward the end of a night; also, the song has a different feel from most of the rest of the material on this album. Warren Storm delivers a really good version of it, with a heartfelt vocal performance. And I love that moment when the sax comes in.  So nice. And on this track Warren is joined on vocals by none other than John Fogerty, so you know he got it just exactly right. This is something special, no question. He follows that with “Mathilda,” a song written by George Khoury and Huey Thierry, and originally recorded by Cookie And His Cupcakes back in the late 1950s. This new rendition by Warren Storm has a delicious early rock and roll vibe, the piano taking a deservedly prominent place. Marc Broussard joins him on vocals for this one. This track also features some really cool work on slide guitar by guest musician Sonny Landreth.

Warren Storm continues in that general vein with a delicious version of Earl King’s “Lonely Nights,” his vocals sounding so damn good. “If you would only come back home/Let me take you in my arms/Yes, you know I could be so happy/I wouldn’t be so all alone.” I also dig that instrumental section, with the piano again driving things forward. There is a bit of silliness at the end of the track. Then we get a groovy rendition of Fats Domino’s “Let The Four Winds Blow.” It’s always a good time to listen to some Fats Domino tunes, and this version has a slightly relaxed vibe, with that distinct New Orleans feel, and features some nice stuff on sax. Things then turn sweeter with a pretty rendition of Bobby Charles’ “Tennessee Blues,” featuring Beau Thomas on fiddle and Richard Comeaux on pedal steel. This is for me one of the disc’s highlights because of Storm’s emotionally powerful and moving vocal performance. Warren Storm had recorded this one before, releasing it as a single in 1983.

“Mama, Mama, Mama” is a lot of fun. This song is one he released as a single back in 1958, the flip side to “Prisoner’s Song,” and in 1983, coupling it with “Tennessee Blues.” On this new version he is joined on vocals by Yvette Landry, who also produced the album. Landry also wrote the album’s liner notes, explaining how the project came about. In addition, she has written a book titled Taking The World, By Storm: A Conversation With Warren “Storm” Schexnider, The Godfather Of Swamp Pop (the cover of which uses the same photo gracing this album’s cover). I need to pick up a copy of that book. Warren Storm follows “Mama, Mama, Mama” with “In My Moments Of Sorrow,” another tune he had recorded in the late 1950s, using it then as the flip side to “Troubles, Troubles.” This new rendition features Willie “Tee” Trahan on tenor saxophone, and that moment when the saxophone begins its lead is one of my favorite parts of the track. That is followed by “Prisoner’s Song,” an enjoyable tune that should get you swaying, if not dancing.

What a fitting choice to follow “Prisoner’s Song” with a Merle Haggard tune. “My House Of Memories” features another seriously good vocal performance. It is incredible that this guy is 82. This is a song that Warren Storm has recorded before, including it on his Night After Night LP, as well as on the Warren Storm And Bad Weather album At Last.  At the end of this version, he asks “Was that any better?” Indeed! I think this version is better than the previous two. There is something playful and fun about “Troubles, Troubles,” making it another of the disc’s highlights for me. Also, Willie “Tee” Trahan joins him on tenor saxophone on this track. Warren Storm wraps up the disc with “Raining In My Heart,” which features yet another fantastic and moving vocal performance. The first time I put this album on, my girlfriend reacted audibly to the lines “If you would only come back home/There’d be no need for me to cry,” being moved by his delivery just as I was.

CD Track List
  1. Long As I Can See The Light
  2. Mathilda
  3. Lonely Nights
  4. Let The Four Winds Blow
  5. Tennessee Blues
  6. Mama, Mama, Mama
  7. In My Moments Of Sorrow
  8. Prisoner’s Song
  9. My House Of Memories
  10. Troubles, Troubles
  11. Raining In My Heart 
Taking The Word, By Storm is scheduled to be released on December 13, 2019 on APO Records.

Marinho: “Tilde” (2019) CD Review

A couple of months ago I heard the song “Freckles” by Filipa Marinho, and was immediately struck by the honesty and vulnerability of her voice. There was both pain and strength behind that vocal performance, and that song made a home for itself in my head. There is something surprisingly and undeniably catchy about it, particularly in its rhythms. So of course I was eager to hear more from Marinho. Her debut album, Tilde, features some excellent original material, including “Freckles.”

The disc opens, appropriately enough, with “Intro,” a short track that creates a strong atmosphere, from which Marinho’s voice rises in triumph to tell us “There will be no pain at all.” It is a comforting promise, and an intriguing opening. Marinho follows that with “I Give Up And It’s OK,” a title I absolutely love. This one quickly establishes a rather cheerful beat and pop sound. What happens when we realize that our ideal image of ourselves is perhaps far from the reality? “Just don’t know how to give up my ways/And as I try to stand out/I give up and that’s okay.”  Then “Ghost Notes” has more of a gentle folk vibe to start, on acoustic guitar, before moving more into the pop realm, but its own distinct section of that realm, somewhere near that of Aimee Mann. “The things you didn’t say/The notes you didn’t sing/And I was left with all the songs that I wanted to play.” This is a gorgeous and moving song, featuring some excellent lyrics. “All parts of me wanting to love you, they’ve fallen asleep/I’ve fallen asleep/And now dreams are the only place where my feelings survive.” And I love her vocal delivery here. This is one of my favorite tracks.

There is a cool jazzy element to “Not You,” as well as compelling lyrics. Her vocal delivery is interesting, for at times there is a sweet and gentle element to it, an almost ethereal quality, while at other times there is an edge to it, it being more grounded. “And after pain comes clarity/You see, in my all my years/I’ve been collecting fears.” That’s followed by “Window Pain,” the title playing on the homonyms “pane” and “pain.” Pretty work on guitar begins this one. The track then takes on a bright folk-pop sound, with a sort of bouncy rhythm. Here she sings, “I don’t remember feeling any pain,” reminding us of the repeated line from “Intro.” Another line from this song that stands out for me is “That the memory of pain, it can turn into a good time.” Yeah, she certainly has her own distinct style, particularly lyrically, and that is a great part of the appeal of this album and of Marinho as an artist.

“Joni” has a cool folk-rock sound, which feels right for a song inspired by Joni Mitchell. This track features some really good work on drums. That’s followed by “Freckles,” the song that initially excited me about this release, and one that remains one of my personal favorites. It is about accepting life and the changes it takes you through. It reminds me a bit of early Liz Phair (her first couple of albums were so good). This song also provides the album with its title: “And life is like a tilde sign/With ups and downs, not a straight line.” The album then concludes with “Outro.” The first time I saw “Outro” printed on an album was when I was kid, on the live Rolling Stones album Still Life. It struck me as goofy then, and still does. This track has a raw, immediate sound, like Marinho is playing in our living room. Here she revisits the lines from the first track. “There will be no pain at all.”

CD Track List
  1. Intro
  2. I Give Up And It’s OK
  3. Ghost Notes
  4. Not You
  5. Window Pain
  6. Joni
  7. Freckles
  8. Outro
Tilde was released on October 18, 2019 on Street Mission Records.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Rebecca Angel: “Santa Baby” (2019) CD Single Review

Christmas may be the least sexy of all the major holidays, yet there are a few Christmas songs that are undoubtedly sexy. Probably at the top of that short list is “Santa Baby,” a song written by Joan Javits, Philip Springer and Anthony Springer, and originally recorded by Eartha Kitt (a woman so sexy herself that she was cast as Catwoman). “Santa Baby” is also quite playful, which helps place it among the best Christmas songs. Now vocalist Rebecca Angel has chosen it for her new single. I first heard Rebecca Angel when she released another holiday single, “My Favorite Time Of The Year,” back in 2015. That song was written by her father, Dennis Angel, who also played flugelhorn on that track. He joins her again on flugelhorn on this new recording. Also backing Rebecca Angel on her new single are Jason Miles on keys, Jonah Prendergast on guitar, Reggie Washington on bass, and Brian Dunne on drums.

Rebecca Angel delivers an absolutely wonderful rendition of “Santa Baby.” Reggie Washington gets it started on bass, and when the rest of the band kicks in, Rebecca offers a bit of gentle scat before delivering the song’s first line. I love that line, by the way: “Santa baby, slip a sable under the tree for me.” Santa had better hurry if he plans on getting me a fur coat because soon he won’t be able to purchase one here in California. Rebecca’s voice has a sweet element to it, an innocence mixed with some excitement, delivered with an intimacy that is perfect for this song. “Santa Baby, I want a yacht/And really that’s not a lot/I’ve been an angel all year.” Well, Santa can’t argue with that, can he? I appreciate how Rebecca’s last name adds another level of playfulness to that line.

CD Track List
  1. Santa Baby
Santa Baby is scheduled to be released on November 29, 2019 on Timeless Groove Records.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Steven Keene: “By Your Side” (2019) Single Review

Steven Keene is a talented singer and songwriter based in New York. He’s been performing and recording since the early 1990s, putting out albums like No Alternative with material that focuses on the craft of storytelling, certainly one of his strengths. He is soon to release an EP titled It Is What It Is, but is first releasing the tracks as singles. The latest single to be released is “By Your Side,” which he wrote. Joining him on this track are Rich Scannella on drums, Joseph Chiarolanza on bass, Matt O’Ree on guitar, Joseph Napolitano on pedal steel, Arne Wendt on keys, and Layonne Holmes on backing vocals.

“By Your Side” is a beautiful and moving song of lost love. In it, he addresses the person directly in lines like “Didn’t I give all I had to give/Didn’t I love all I could love/And wasn’t I always there by your side?” Steven gives an excellent vocal performance here, the heartache and confusion and longing all present, as he struggles to understand and come to terms with the loss. It is so effective, that his ache becomes our own. This song manages to get inside us, largely because of his vocals, but also because of the work on keys. “And you – is it the same for you/Or have you found someone new?

CD Track List
  1. By Your Side
By Your Side was released on November 8, 2019.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Royal Hounds: "Low Class Songs For High Class People" (2019) CD Review

If you are in the mood for some fun, lively, not-too-serious music played by talented musicians, you should check out The Royal Hounds' new album, Low Class Songs For High Class People. It is full of songs that should make you smile, even laugh, songs you can also dance to. Some of these songs are certainly on the goofy side, and that is just fine with me, particularly these days when reality has turned ugly. But don't worry, there is an intelligence behind this music. These are not dumb songs. Based in Nashville, this group is the trio of Scott Hinds, Matheus Canteri and Scott Billingsley. The disc features mostly original material, the majority of it written by Scott Hinds. There are also some guest musicians on this release, including Rory Hoffman on accordion and organ, Eddie Lange on pedal steel and Robert Gay on trumpet.

"The Walk," the disc's first track, opens with a bang and then very quickly becomes a rather silly tune poking fun at the rock and roll tradition of songs that introduce new dance sensations. These lyrics should give you an idea where these guys are coming from: "You put your left foot forward/Then you follow with the right/You repeat the thing again with all of your might/You can walk to the kitchen/Or walk down the hall/Walk across the dance floor/To lean against the wall." This one makes me laugh out loud, particularly those lines. Yeah, it's a dance song for people who don't or can't dance. I'm curious how the fans approach this one at shows. Do they stop dancing and just walk around? I hope to see this band in order to investigate and report back to you all. Well, "The Walk" is followed by "Whackity Do," and when it opens it seems like another goof on a dance craze. But "Whackity Do" is not a new dance trend. Rather, it seems to be about another of our favorite pastimes, drinking.

My personal favorite track on this album is "The Parthenon," which recreates the temple as a brothel and dance club. And why not? It's populated by "a hundred thousand girls who will be yours 'til dawn/If you last that long." I love this track's vibe. It is ridiculously fun, and it features some totally wonderful work on guitar. Plus, it has a wild and engaging vocal performance, like a carnival barker pumped on some cocaine cocktail. And then like halfway through there is the addition of some delightful backing vocals. And let's not forget the accordion. I love this song. It's followed by cool instrumental tune (well, instrumental except for shouts of "Hey") titled "Pororoca." What is it about those surf instrumentals? Have you ever heard a bad one? Me neither.

Then we're back to goofy material with "Tweakers From Outer Space," about a different sort of cheesy low-budget science fiction creature, described here as having "matted hair and a hungry stare." When Scott Hinds shouts out "Brothers and sisters" toward the end, as the song dives into its silliest, most delightful section, for a moment I'm reminded of that live version of Neil Diamond's "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show" from Hot August Night. But don't worry about that. What you need to worry about are the aliens who are "coming to raid your medicine cabinet" for "anything that just happens to start with the letter P." And, oh man, that section even includes a nod to a Kenny Loggins hit from the 1980s.

"Pizza Party" is a short, enjoyable song about eating pizza. Or could it be a euphemism, what with him saying they'll "pound and pound and pound the dough" and all? This track features more good work on guitar. "I'll ruin your mascara with a squirt of marinara." The Royal Hounds dip more into the country realm with "Road Scholar," the title obviously a play on Rhodes Scholar. It's a song about being a trucker and having intimate and extensive knowledge of the nation's roads. Then "Manteiga Braganca" comes on strong and doesn't let up, at least not for a minute and forty-four seconds. It's a delicious, fiery instrumental number featuring some fantastic guitar work. Short, but oh so good. That's followed by "Herbie The Butterfly," a lively number with some good changes to keep things interesting. This one reminds me of the first time I drove into California, when dozens and dozens of butterflies ended up perishing on the front of my van. There was no way to avoid them. Actually, it's a depressing thought to revisit. Thanks, Hounds.

"Chinese Buffet" is a goofy and enjoyable country number about eating Chinese food. "We can have it all again if we wait about an hour." This one was written by Bill Cabage. The album then ends with a cover of "Ghost Riders In The Sky." On the back of the CD case, it is listed as a bonus track, but once again I argue there can't be a bonus track on an album's initial release. It just doesn't make sense (unless the vinyl release is missing that particular track). Anyway, it's a fun, rockin' rendition that becomes a very cool jam. Again, I love that guitar. That jam leads into part of "The Devil Went Down To Georgia" before returning to "Ghost Riders In The Sky."

CD Track List
  1. The Walk
  2. Whackity Do
  3. The Parthenon
  4. Pororoca
  5. Tweakers From Outer Space
  6. Pizza Party
  7. Road Scholar
  8. Manteiga Braganca
  9. Herbie The Butterfly
  10. Chinese Buffet
  11. Ghost Riders In The Sky
Low Class Songs For High Class People was released on August 2, 2019.

Josh Lederman And The Cambridge-Somerville All-Stars at The Plough And Stars, 11-9-19 Concert Review

Josh Lederman is largely responsible for my meeting the Love of my life. He and The Cambridge-Somerville All-Stars have had a residency at The Plough And Stars in Cambridge for more than ten years, and at the very beginning of that residency, my brother and I went to see them. We had been big fans of Josh Lederman's previous band, Josh Lederman Y Los Diablos, and were excited to see what sort of joys the new configuration would bring us. Well, that show brought me more than a couple hours of great music. It introduced me to the woman who would change my world for the better. I had invited my friend Margot to that show, and she had invited her friend Nancy, and Nancy had invited her friend Theresa. When I saw Theresa, everything changed. If I hadn't fallen in love with the Josh Lederman Y Los Diablos album It's A Long And Lonely Time Until The Train Will Bring You Home, I wouldn't have been at The Plough And Stars that day to fall in love with Theresa. My brother reminded me of this when he and I went to see Josh Lederman And The Cambridge-Somerville All-Stars on November 9th. See, it was my brother that turned me onto Josh Lederman Y Los Diablos in the first place. He's the one who gave me It's A Long And Lonely Time Until The Train Will Bring You Home. So, you know, he's partly responsible too.

I try to see Josh Lederman And The Cambridge-Somerville All-Stars every time I visit Boston. It's one of my favorite things to do in that city, even more fun than having lunch at Life Alive or trying on old furs at Buzzy's Bazaar, which I also love to do. I'm sure I've mentioned this before, but the band's lineup changes from show to show, depending on who is available. That keeps things fresh and interesting. For the show on the 9th the band featured acoustic guitar (that's Josh himself, of course), drums, harmonica, accordion, sousaphone and saxophone (and clarinet for certain songs). Because of Mark Earley's presence on harmonica, the group sprinkled in some bluesy numbers. Josh and Mark have their own duo, The Country Pleasures, where they cover a lot of great old blues tunes, and some of that material found its way into the set lists at this show. Songs like "You'd Better Mind," "Cornbread, Peas And Black Molasses," "Sugar Mama," and "Outside Woman Blues" were played during the two sets. Josh also included some songs from the band's two albums, Seven Years A-Roaming ("Pretty Babe") and Seven Shining Stars ("Summer Days," "Will I Miss The City?"). "Summer Days" featured a great lead on saxophone, and "Sugar Mama" featured some wonderful blues clarinet work.

I couldn't help but notice that Josh put his pint on the rail right next to the sign that reads "Please No Drinks On The Rail." Ah, that rebellious rapscallion! At this show he shared vocal duties with a couple other members of the band, including the accordion player, who sang lead on "Diggy Liggy Lo," a song I don't recall hearing the band perform before. And of course all the band members got plenty of opportunities to shine, particularly as they kept things loose, improvising and taking turns at leads like a jazz band. Josh Lederman And The Cambridge-Somerville All-Stars are at The Plough And Stars every other Saturday afternoon from around 4 p.m. to around 6 p.m.  If you live in the Boston area, and have not yet seen them, I highly recommend checking them out. What better way is there to spend a Saturday afternoon than drinking Guinness and enjoying some fun music in a friendly atmosphere? And, hey, you might meet the love of your life.

Here are a few photos from the show:

The Plough And Stars is located at 912 Massachusetts Ave. in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Svetlana: "Night At The Movies" (2019) CD Review

It's interesting to me how closely tied music and film often are. Sometimes a song that we'd heard all our lives will be featured in a film and from then on it is difficult to divorce the film's images from the song. I think particularly of "Stuck In The Middle With You" as it was used in Reservoir Dogs and "Without You" in The Rules Of Attraction. And of course films are responsible for bringing us a great number of original songs, including many that are now considered classics. Vocalist Svetlana Shmulyian, on her new album Night At The Movies, performs some of that excellent material, choosing songs from the 1930s all the way up to current cinema.

This wonderful album opens with "Moonlight," a song from the 1995 remake of Sabrina, where it is performed by Sting. Svetlana delivers a pretty rendition featuring a vocal performance that is warm and gentle. This track also contains some really nice work by Chico Pinheiro on guitar. Svetlana follows that with another song from the 1990s, but one with a sound and style that gives it the feel of belonging to an earlier time, which makes sense, as it is from Dick Tracy, which has a 1930s feel. The song, "Sooner Or Later," was written by Stephen Sondheim and originally recorded by Madonna. Svetlana gives us an excellent rendition. I love her seductive, exciting and yet also sweet delivery of lines like "I'm going to love you like nothing you've known." Oh yes! This track features some beautiful work by Sullivan Fortner on piano, particularly during that instrumental section. Svetlana then really goes back to the 1930s for a rendition of "Cheek To Cheek," here presented as a duet with Wycliffe Gordon. Wycliffe has something of a Louis Armstrong style to his voice, so this track reminds me of that great Louis Armstrong/Ella Fitzgerald rendition of this song. This is a cheerful rendition, particularly because of Svetlana's vocal approach, which is joyful and sweet. Yes, life is good. The instrumental section is so upbeat, so positive that it seems to permanently push away the world's troubles. And I absolutely love the work on horns. Wycliffe, in addition to providing vocals, plays trombone on this track.

Svetlana then moves into the 1970s with "Pure Imagination," a song from Willie Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, where it is sung by Gene Wilder. Here it is given a cool rhythm. Rogerio Bocatto plays percussion on this track. Rob Garcia is on drums. "Wanna change the world? There's nothing to it." Well, let's get to it! Svetlana delivers a beautiful, gentle, dreamlike rendition of "Moon River." It is almost like a lullaby, holding us and keeping away the monsters. This track features some pretty and impressive work on guitar by Chico Pinheiro. That's followed by "Happy," a song I only recently heard because of an instrumental version by Wayne Alpern. The original rendition by Pharrell Williams has a catchy, cheerful sound, but is terribly repetitive (I could take only two minutes of it the first time I gave it a go). This rendition by Svetlana is another duet with Wycliffe Gordon, and has a delicious bit of swing to it. These guys are having a good time with this tune, especially John Chin on keys and Rob Garcia on drums. That wonderful instrumental section keeps the track from becoming repetitive and suffering the same failings as the original. I especially love Wycliffe's work on trombone.

"When You Wish Upon A Star" begins with some nice work on piano by Sullivan Fortner. This rendition has a delicious late-night vibe, with Svetlana's vocals supported by piano. There is an almost magical quality to it, making us think perhaps all our dreams will come true. That's followed by "Watch What Happens," a song from The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg. I like it when this one kicks in, taking on an interesting combination of styles, including that cool rhythm. I also love the way that horn rises out of nowhere as if spontaneously bursting into song. The next couple are songs I wasn't really all that familiar with. First we get "Remember Me," a song from the 2017 movie Coco. I haven't seen that movie yet, but this is a rather pretty song, with more nice work on piano. It is also the most recent composition chosen for this release. "I sing a secret song to you/Each night we are apart/Remember me, though I have to travel far/Remember me each time you hear a sad guitar." Irony Of Fate is another film I haven't seen, and on this album Svetlana performs "No One's Home," singing it in Russian.

I love the song "Smile," from the 1936 movie Modern Times. The music was composed by Charlie Chaplin, and the lyrics were added later. This version Svetlana presents as a duet with her daughter, Isabel Braun. It's a rather sweet rendition, and features some good work by Pasquale Grasso on guitar. That's followed by a pleasant, passionate rendition of "It Might Be You," a song from Tootsie, and then Randy Newman's "Almost There," from a movie titled Princess And The Frog (another I haven't seen, and one I have no intention of seeing). Randy Newman was one of the coolest guys around until Disney put a leash on him and had him declawed. But this is a fun number, delivered with joy and cheer, and I love the horns. Wycliffe Gordon joins her once again on trombone. Svetlana wraps things up with a rendition of the beloved "Over The Rainbow," one of the most famous songs written for the movies. She gives us a cool, jazzy version, her vocals supported by Pasquale Grasso on guitar.

CD Track List
  1. Moonlight
  2. Sooner Or Later
  3. Cheek To Cheek
  4. Pure Imagination
  5. Moon River
  6. Happy
  7. When You Wish Upon A Star
  8. Watch What Happens
  9. Remember Me
  10. No One's Home
  11. Smile
  12. It Might Be You
  13. Almost There
  14. Over The Rainbow
Night At The Movies was released on September 20, 2019 on Starr Records.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Jason James: "Seems Like Tears Ago" (2019) CD Review

At a certain point in my life (my late teens, early twenties) I said that I hated country music. It wasn't exactly true. I loved Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and those folks. What I didn't care for was that bland country pop that seemed dominant at the time. That music felt false to me, more of a pose than coming from the heart, and lacking integrity. And so for a while I steered clear of new country music. But fortunately those days are gone, and there is a whole lot of great country music being recorded and released. And some of it has more of a classic style that I've always loved, like Jason James' new album, Seems Like Tears Ago. Featuring all original material, written by Jason James, this album can hold its own alongside the those great country classics. Even the album cover has something of a nostalgic quality, both in the style of printing of his name and in the photo on the back, where he is pictured with stacks of records. Joining Jason James on this release are Cody Braun on fiddle, T Jarrod Bonta on piano, Chris Cook on rubboard, John Evans on electric guitar and jaw harp, Jacob Marchese on standup bass, Geoff Queen on steel guitar and electric guitar, Rich Richards on drums, and Patrick Herzfeld and Sara Stein on backing vocals.

The album kicks off with its title track, and immediately I fall for its classic sound, which feels both familiar and fresh. It is Jason James' voice that really sells this track. It is authentic and true, and so timeless. Hey, honesty never goes out of style. "It killed me to see you go/But you said it had to be so/It seems like tears ago." I also really like the backing vocals, and that sweet fiddle. "You left these arms of mine/You find more comfort in the warmth of the wine." "Seems Like Tears Ago" is followed by "I Miss You After All," a song about pretending to move on after a relationship, one of those perfect topics for a country song. "I even tell myself tomorrow's a brighter day/But every night when the teardrops fall/I can't fool myself/I miss you after all." Still, it is not a depressing song; it has a rather cheerful vibe. And hey, there is something positive about self-awareness, right? This track features some really nice work on steel guitar.

"Move A Little Closer" has a bit more of a rock element, and Jason James employs a different vocal approach here. It's fairly steady and in control. "When I start a-talking, it's best you start a-listening/'Cause honey baby this aint' right/You'd better move a little closer before I say it's over." Even though of course it is the woman who is really in control, as we learn when he sings of sleepless nights and so on (and listen to how his vocal approach changes on those lines, a nice touch). I also love that lead on fiddle halfway through. We then get "We're Gonna Honky Tonk Tonight." Honky tonk as a verb? Well, maybe. This one has that delicious classic style, with that old rhythm and plenty of great stuff on steel guitar, and just a bit of twang to his vocal delivery. There is a sweet and innocent vibe to this one that I appreciate. That's followed by "Achin' Takin' Place," one of those great sad country numbers of deceit and a hurt heart, featuring a moving and effective vocal performance. So good. Plus, I am really fond of that piano work. This is one of my favorite tracks.

When a song opens with the line "Everywhere I go, there you are," it can go one of two ways, right? Either that's a wonderful, beautiful thing, or it is the cause of perpetual heartache and annoyance. Being a country song, you'd likely expect it to be the second. But no, "Simply Divine" is a country love song. "Hand in hand, we walk as one/And it's good to know we'll always be together/Until our days here are done." Ah yes, this is a song that looks right into a partner's eyes and sees a lifetime stretching both into the past and future. A wonderful thing, to be sure, and a beautiful song. Jason James then moves in the other direction with "Coldest Day Of The Year," a song about life after the end of a relationship, with him singing "I never got over her saying goodbye/And every passing day is colder than the last/How I thought with time my heart could heal/As time drags on, I start to fear/Every day she's gone is the coldest day of the year."

The music turns more upbeat with the fun "Cry On The Bayou." It may seem odd to dance around to someone singing, "I'm gonna cry, I'm gonna cry," but this song has that Louisiana thing that always makes life seem like a party. "Now I'm as lonesome as a boy can be/Even my shadow's done run off on me." That's followed by "Foolish Heart," a song of love for someone who isn't good for you. Most of us have experienced that at one time or another. "Foolish heart/Play the part/Of the fool for her/That you will always be." I love those touches on piano. The album then concludes with "Ole Used To Be," which has a relaxed, easygoing sound. "I'm trying to make the best of a bad situation/Though troubles weigh heavy on my mind/An ole used to be has come back to town/And the last few nights you ain't been around." Uh-oh. "I hope your ole used to be is still him, not me."

CD Track List
  1. Seems Like Tears Ago
  2. I Miss You After All
  3. Move A Little Closer
  4. We're Gonna Honky Tonk Tonight
  5. Achin' Takin' Place
  6. Simply Divine
  7. Coldest Day Of The year
  8. Cry On The Bayou
  9. Foolish Heart
  10. Ole Use To Be
Seems Like Tears Ago was released on October 4, 2019 on Melodyville Records.

Jim's Big Ego at Second Friday Coffee House, 11-8-19 Concert Review

Jim's Big Ego performing "International"
It is always a treat when Jim's Big Ego puts on a show. And on November 8th, folks were treated to a double dose of Jim Infantino. On Thursday, November 7th, Jim posted on Facebook that Hannah Siglin, the scheduled opening act, was no longer able to make it, so he'd be opening for himself. Solo Jim opening for Jim's band. This was great news for people like me, who are always wanting more Jim. The venue itself is a church auditorium where they were about to open a production of Newsies, and in fact that production's set was already up, hidden behind the thick burgundy curtain that separated the set from the band. The place had a really good vibe to it, most of the audience seated at tables, with a couple of rows of chairs at the back, close to the merchandise and concession tables. Fellow End Construction member Jon Svetkey runs the concert series there, and there was some talk of Jon performing at least one song with Jim. Well, not so much talk as a request by fans online. Of course, we knew whatever songs were played, the concert was going to be a good time.

Jim's Big Ego did a rather lengthy soundcheck, which ended up being almost a set in itself, and included several songs that were then not performed during the actual show, including a Tom Waits cover. The audience started entering during that song, as it was then 7 p.m., leading Jim to say, "We should do covers now, don't want to give anything away." But they actually followed that with "Hate Street," a song they would end up choosing to close the show. I noticed that it was an older crowd, but then remembered that I'm older now too. So I suppose I was among my own people. When did this happen? Who was responsible? Inquiries will be made, rest assured.

At 7:45 p.m., Jon Svetkey introduced opening act Jim Infantino. Jim then joked, "They only gave me five songs for the opener, so I'm going to choose wisely." He began his set with "Red Motorcycle," a song he wrote with his daughter, then followed it with a song from the early days, "Trust This Face." Thirty years have passed since the first time I saw him perform this one, and the song still makes me laugh. A good deal of the song's enjoyment comes from watching Jim's facial expressions. This song featured a bit of audience participation at the end. That was followed by "Always Thus," with lyrics about a king not deserving to wear the crown. I could guess the name of the person most folks were thinking of while he played it. So the audience burst out laughing when afterward Jim said, "Thank you, that was a song about King Friday." Jim then played "Everybody Gets The Blues," the song that was requested online, the song which during the End Construction days featured a wonderful four-part vocal section. At this show this song featured a soft, gentle, almost delicate delivery. But Jon Svetkey did not join him. Jim then wrapped up his opening set with "Prince Charming," first telling the crowd, "I'm working on a cassette," which once again brought us back to those early days when his releases were available only on tape. The first set ended at 8:14 p.m.

After one of the shortest set breaks I've ever experienced (eight minutes), Jon Svetkey returned to the stage to introduce Jim's Big Ego. Jim then, playing up the opening act angle one more time, said, "Let's hear it for Jim Infantino," adding that the guy was showing some promise. He also, before starting the set's first song, mentioned the stack of napkins on stage. Those were then passed out to the audience as he explained the game for "Napkin Poetry." "If you have a thought, write it down," he said. He also introduced his band, which includes Josh Kantor on keys, Jesse Flack on bass, and Dan Cantor on percussion. Red Sox fans will recognize Josh Kantor as the organist at Fenway. Then the band kicked off the set with "Background Vocals," a song from their 2008 album Free. They followed that with that album's title track, "Free (And On Our Own)," a tune with a sweeter vibe. "I'm lonely but I'm not alone." This version featured some nice stuff on keys. After "The Ballad Of Barry Allen," a song from They're Everywhere, Jim asked that people start passing the napkins toward the stage. Soon there was a hefty stack of thoughts for Jim to sift through and sing. But first he played "In My Cult," the lead-off track from Stay, which was released in 2012. He lost his place for a moment during that song, and someone in the audience shouting something out to him. "Do you know the lyrics?" Jim asked the person. The guy did not, apparently. Jesse Flack used a bow on "In My Cult." After it, Josh told the audience, "We wrote that song to play at Jim's church." He added that he thought they had now outdone themselves by playing it another church that benefits a third church. The concert series at Second Friday Coffee House raises money for various charities each year, and the funds raised at this show were set to benefit another church. "In My Cult" was followed by "Everything Must Go," a song whose joyful vibe always surprises me. After all, this is the one that includes the line, "Yeah, we're all going to die, and we don't know when."

Jim gathered all the napkins from the stage, and the band developed a seriously cool groove while Jim put the napkins in some sort of order. Then, when everything was just right, he began to sing the phrases and lines he found on each napkin, and so the band and audience created a song together. It is interesting to me how themes do emerge from this process, that it doesn't feel entirely random. Partly that is because there are certain notions plaguing our collective consciousness, and so, yes, several of the lines at this show referred to the scoundrel currently occupying the White House and the hope for his impeachment and removal. And partly this is because Jim chooses certain lines to return to throughout the song. And actually, the other band members will latch onto certain phrases and echo them when it seems right. It is a remarkably satisfying experience, as it brings the audience together. And it might surprise you to learn that the song that emerges is quite good. As the song progressed, Jim would let the napkins fall to the stage, and so afterward he said: "The set list is completely covered. I don't know what we're playing." What they chose to play next was "Big Old Dark Green Car," a song from the early days that was revisited on Stay.

Jim's Big Ego has certain songs that always please the crowd, and they followed "Big Old Dark Green Car" with a couple of them. "She's Dead" was the first, and Josh provided some delightful moments on keys that made me laugh. The second was "Stress," which now had a bit of funk to its rhythm. My friend Margot was particularly excited to hear "Stress." Jim then mentioned he wasn't sure how much time he had left in the set, and mused that at some point people will start leaving. "That will be the hint," he said. "But I won't take it." The band then played "The World Of Particulars," which apparently had not been performed by the full band before. It was followed by a really nice rendition of "Los Angeles." Jim read a few sentences from his novel, The Wakeful Wanderer's Guide To New New England & Beyond, while the band provided a little jazzy backing music. "That's how I want to do the whole audio book," he said afterward. The band then went into "You're Delicious," the wonderful zombie love song. Why hasn't The Walking Dead used this song yet? That would certainly help the show avoid getting too stale. Jim's Big Ego wrapped up the set with a rousing rendition of "International" and a reprise of "She's Dead." The encore was "Hate Street." The show ended at 9:46 p.m.

  1. The World Of Particulars
  2. Everything Must Go
  3. Smells Like Teen Spirit/Kumbaya
  4. Slow
  5. Way Down In The Hole
  6. Hate Street
Set I
  1. Red Motorcycle
  2. Trust This Face
  3. Always Thus
  4. Everybody Gets The Blues
  5. Prince Charming
Set II
  1. Background Vocals
  2. Free (And On Our Own)
  3. The Ballad Of Barry Allen
  4. In My Cult
  5. Everything Must Go
  6. Napkin Poetry
  7. Big Old Dark Green Car
  8. She's Dead
  9. Stress
  10. The World Of Particulars
  11. Los Angeles
  12. You're Delicious
  13. International
  14. She's Dead (Reprise)
  1. Hate Street
Here are a few photos from the show:

soundcheck: "The World Of Particulars"
"Red Motorcycle"
"Trust This Face"
"Background Vocals"
"The Ballad Of Barry Allen"
"In My Cult" 
"Napkin Poetry"
Second Friday Coffee House is located at 404 Concord Ave. in Belmont, Massachusetts.