Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Soulsha: “Carry It On” (2019) CD Review

Soulsha is a band that seems to have come from everywhere at once, like it came rushing at us from various corners of the musical universe in order to raise our spirits and strengthen our resolve. The band’s music seems to say, “There is beauty everywhere, enjoy your life, but don’t become complacent.” In these dark days of gun violence and racism and treachery and an extremely divided nation, this band tells us not to give up, and to take great joy in not giving up. The music has Celtic and African elements. But where the band actually comes from is Boston. I’m always excited when folks from my home state of Massachusetts excel like this band does. The band, by the way, is made up of Elias Alexander on bagpipes, low whistle and vocals; Lamine TourĂ© on sabar drums and vocals; Neil Pearlman on piano, organ, accordion, mandolin, banjo and vocals; Conor Hearn on guitar and vocals; Dylan Sherry on saxophone and vocals; Jake Galloway on trumpet and vocals; Charles Berthoud on bass; and Chris Southiere on drums and vocals. Carry It On is the group’s debut full-length release. Alastair White joins the group on fiddle on this album.

The album opens with “Isle Of Skye Reel,” an excellent and exciting instrumental piece. This tune is a wild celebration, combining elements of Celtic music and funk and disco and whatever else seems to strike the musicians’ fancy, taking a traditional number and adding a whole lot to it. It’s like a folk band was dropped into a dance club and was able to adapt immediately and get everyone onto the dance floor, even drawing in people from outside who might otherwise have passed the club by. Then in the middle of everything, there is fun percussion section, which I love. This track is a delight, a fantastic way to get the album going. Then when “Carry It On,” the album’s title track, begins, it sounds like it might be a folk song. But very quickly it takes on a different vibe, a very positive sound, with friendly vocals offering hope and a way through the darkness. “I want to see people making music, being proud of who they are/Proud of where they come from/I want to see people shaking hands with each other/No judgment at all/I want to see people listen to each other, really listen.” And then that wonderful Celtic folk element comes in. The drum beat combines Celtic and African styles. If you need something to lift your spirits (and who doesn’t need just that these days?), you’re going to appreciate this track and this album. Let loose, forget any inhibitions, and just dance – with yourself, with each other. I love that section when the horn and bagpipes listen and respond to each other, a dance of their own. When I hear music like this, it strikes me as impossible that someone like Donald Trump can even exist. Wouldn’t the world of this song destroy him and those like him? Or at least change them? Like a bright ray of light passing through them and negating all their toxicity.

On this disc, there are several tracks labeled “Interlude,” which are short tracks, most of them instrumentals. The first, which follows “Carry It On” and is titled appropriately “Interlude I,” is a percussion piece. The second, “Interlude II,” is a sort of funky groove. The third, “Interlude III” (are you seeing the pattern?) is not an instrumental. It features spoken word over bagpipes. “Where are the voices that have carried us across the generations, across the seas?” “Interlude IV” comes straight out of “Beautiful Line,” and feels like a short extension of one of that track’s musical themes. The final of these short pieces, “Interlude V,” is a cool bass piece, with the sounds of nature in the background.

Things get nice and funky with “Come On Down,” offering more positive, joyous vibes even as it touches on some serious subjects in lines like: “And if a child want to grow right wild eyed, we’d got to give him peace/It’s hard to grow when the guns keep blazing every day in the land of the free/Come on down now, people just come on down/We’ve got work to do, ain’t no use lying around.” I love that this music helps to make us feel like we can be effective, that we can fix things, because often it feels so overwhelming, and we feel ineffectual and powerless. This track also features some delicious work on keys. “We’ve got work to do,” indeed! There is a lot to do, a lot to repair. “Rhythm’s In The Melody” should certainly get you dancing and grooving. My favorite part is that Celtic instrumental section. That kind of thing always makes me smile, pushes my cares away. The track then explodes to another realm to get you dancing harder. “Now let it move, let it move you.”  Just let this music envelope you, lift you up, to the point where you almost lose all sense of self, and become part of the whole flow of the sound.

“Standing In The Water” is a prettier instrumental number, soaring at the beginning, as if at the edge of a cliff as the heavens shine down upon the instruments. Then the tune takes on a greater force, its voice becomes louder, stronger, as if the light is now not shining on the instruments, but shining from them. This is a glorious and beautiful tune. Toward the end, it relaxes a bit for a sweet lead on horn, then rises again. I could do without the sounds of waves crashing at the end, of course, as they seem to detract rather than add anything to this track. The percussion is really what drives “A’Ghrian,” and halfway through, there is a drum solo, so yeah, I fucking love this track. The album concludes with “What A Day,” the horns blast in, announcing the track, lifting us from our seats, and that is just the beginning. Check out that insistent rhythm, the horn flying over it, which gives way to a funkier vibe. What a day, indeed! As this instrumental track continues, it seems to grow in joy.

CD Track List
  1. Isle Of Skye Reel
  2. Carry It On
  3. Interlude I
  4. Fetchal
  5. Come On Down
  6. Interlude II
  7. Rhythm’s In The Melody
  8. Interlude III
  9. Standing In The Water
  10. Beautiful Line
  11. Interlude IV
  12. A’Ghrian
  13. Interlude V
  14. What A Day
Carry It On was released on May 31, 2019.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Larry Wolf With Four Cats & A Canary: “Mood Swings” (2019) CD Review

There are some songs you can completely rely on. To lift you up, to connect you to the human race, to speak to whatever it is that we have in common, that which makes us human, that which keeps us breathing and trying even if we’re suffering. And Mood Swings, the new disc from Larry Wolf, is full of them. These songs are classics for a reason. They will continue to delight and move people for generations, perhaps forever (or until this planet becomes uninhabitable and humanity is extinct, which will be in like fifty years if the Republicans have their way). Larry Wolf offers wonderful, personal takes on songs like “Embraceable You,” “Goodnight Irene” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Joining him on this release are Adrianne Duncan on piano and vocals (Adrianne also produced the album); Jason Luckett on guitar, harmonica and vocals; John Tegmeyer on clarinet; Edwin Livingston on bass; and Dan Schnelle on drums.

Larry Wolf gets the album off to a delightful start with a fun rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.” How can you fail to smile while listening to this track? There is a love for the song heard in every note, and this track features some wonderful stuff on clarinet. This song breathes and floats, and includes a cool bass solo. “Blue days/All of them gone/Nothing but blue skies/From now on.” The clarinet begins the following track “Laura,” sounding sweet and soft at moments, effectively pulling us in. Then that nice, rather laid back rhythm is established. Larry Wolf’s vocal performance is smoother here, with a romantic bent. And there is some more excellent work on bass, particularly in the second half of the track.

I may have mentioned this once or twice, but you can never go wrong with Gershwin. Larry Wolf chooses “Embraceable You,” his voice backed by guitar. His vocal delivery here has at times a relaxed quality that gives the impression he’s close to us, giving us a private performance, perhaps at a small dinner party. “I love all the many charms about you/Above all, I want my arms about you/Don’t be a naughty baby/Come to papa, do/My sweet embraceable you.” Things then take an interesting turn with his take on “Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor,” a classic and beloved bluesy gem. I love his playful approach to the lyrics, and I dig the clarinet. This track also boasts some wonderful guitar work during that instrumental section partway through, and some cool stuff on bass, moving along beneath that pretty clarinet lead. This is one of my favorite tracks on the disc. It is a total delight from beginning to end. “Mmm, I do not want no pork chops/Give me some cherry pie/Gonna love you, mama/‘Til we say goodbye.”

When I was growing up, Saturday Night Live did one of those fake commercials for Linda Ronstadt’s What’s New album, with a play on its title track, the line being “I sing old songs for you/Because I can’t do what’s new” (with Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Ronstadt). I’m not sure why that has stayed with me all these years, but it has, and it comes to mind whenever I hear this song. And so here it is again. Anyway, this version is done as a duet with Adrianne Duncan, and has a light, fanciful quality. That’s followed by “Good Night Irene,” a song I love. Larry Wolf offers a kind of cheerful rendition, his vocals supported by guitar. These lines always tickle me for some reason: “Sometimes I live in the country/Sometimes I live in town/Sometimes I get a great notion/To jump into the river and drown.”

There are several songs that I learned from the Grateful Dead or the Jerry Garcia Band. “That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day)” is one of them. I saw Jerry Garcia Band perform it in 1989 when I was still a teenager, and fell in love with the song. I really like the way Larry Wolf approaches this one. The track has a folk vibe, and his voice has a gentle and slightly weary quality, which works perfectly with the lyrics. Plus, that guitar instrumental section is absolutely wonderful. This is another of my favorite tracks. It’s followed by an interesting rendition of “Georgia On My Mind,” which is beautiful at times (I love that clarinet), and kind of playful too. And there is some sweet work on piano. Larry Wolf also offers a sweet version of “You Are My Sunshine,” featuring harmonica. Nancy Wolf provides additional vocals on this track. Another of this disc’s highlights is the moving rendition of “I’ll Be Seeing You,” with its late-night vibe and nice work on piano. There is a bit of heartache, a bit of sorrow in his delivery, as well as love. “I’ll find you in the morning sun/And when the night is new/I’ll be looking at the moon/But I’ll be seeing you.”

CD Track List
  1. Blue Skies
  2. Laura
  3. Embraceable You
  4. Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor
  5. What’s New
  6. Good Night Irene
  7. I Won’t Cry Anymore
  8. Lucky Old Sun
  9. Georgia On My Mind
  10. Motherless Child
  11. You Are My Sunshine
  12. Autumn Leaves
  13. I’ll Be Seeing You
  14. Twinkle
Mood Swings is scheduled to be released on August 16, 2019.

Ross Osteen Band: “Williwaw” (2019) CD Review

Two thirds of the citizens of this country have the blues (the other third having apparently suffered irreparable brain damage from inbreeding and tainted water, resulting in racism and stupidity beyond measure). We are living in scary and incomprehensible times. So again and again we turn to music, and often it is the blues that speak strongly to us. Ross Osteen Band’s latest release, Williwaw, provides a good dose of blues for us to sink our teeth into. This is the band’s third album, following 2016’s Glenhead Station. The band, by the way, is made up of Ross Osteen on guitar and vocals, Patrick Gaynor on drums, and Jim Vint on bass.

The back of the CD case claims “All songs written and recorded by Ross Osteen Band,” but that just isn’t quite true, is it? For the album opens with a cover of Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy.”  And these days I am grateful to hear someone sing, “Everything, everything, everything gonna be all right this morning.” Well, okay! The guitar that follows that line seems to confirm the truth of the statement, and I am eager to believe. And then that familiar riff, that familiar rhythm comes in, and Ross Osteen belts out the lyrics in an honest, powerful way. No bullshit here, just some damn good blues. That’s followed by “Show Her,” electric blues with a bit of attitude in the playing. Guitarist Bill Altman joins the band on this track. Ross draws out certain words, certain syllables. “Well, the stars at night start blinking, there ain’t no one else you can call/My woman, she walks with her head held high/’Cause I show her.”

“Make It” has a more fun vibe, more of a rock flavor. It also has a positive message we can grab onto, in the line “I’m going to make it anyway.” We need to keep telling ourselves just that. Ross Osteen’s vocals at moments go into John Fogerty territory on this track. There is also plenty of delicious guitar work here, helping to make this one a thumping blues rock gem. “Ain’t nobody out there giving me a sign.” Then “Little Rooster” puts Ross Osteen firmly in the company of George Thorogood, particularly the way he delivers the song’s lyrics, the way he tells us the story. This solid blues jam rocks us, making me imagine this tune is a good part of the band’s live performances. That’s followed by “A No. 1,” which also features some cool work on guitar.

“Nighttime” is a loose, enjoyable tune with something of a Bo Diddley beat. It has an air of celebration and excitement at the possibilities, as night falls. “Come on now, we don’t need no car.” That’s followed by “Willie G,” blues with a southern rock flavor, a cool tune that moves along at a good clip with a beat you dance to. On this one too, Ross Osteen’s vocal delivery reminds me a bit of John Fogerty. “Broom” then features some delicious work on drums. “Yeah, they told me that we lost the way/Ain’t nothing like it used to be now.” That’s followed by “Road I’m On.” I’m struck by the energy of his vocals on the entire album, but on this track in particular. The power of his voice seems so natural, almost effortless. The album then concludes with “Jellyfish Jam,” the only instrumental track, a kind of slow jam with a cool bass line and more good work on guitar.

CD Track List
  1. Mannish Boy
  2. Show Her
  3. Make It
  4. Little Rooster
  5. A No. 1
  6. Nighttime
  7. Willie G
  8. Broom
  9. Road I’m On
  10. Jellyfish Jam
Williwaw was released on March 21, 2019.

Princess Frank and Sunset Junction Band at The Thirsty Crow, 7-28-19 Concert Review

Princess Frank
Yesterday was a day of excellent music. I started my day at The Federal Bar, where I saw Freedy Johnston and Amilia K. Spicer. Then I made my way down to Silver Lake, to The Thirsty Crow, where Princess Frank holds his residency. Sharing the bill with him was Sunset Junction Band, which features Leslie Knauer on lead vocals and guitar. Parking is always a bit challenging in that area, and I ended up farther away than usual. It was a scorcher of a day, so I was soaked with sweat by the time I arrived at the venue. As I walked in, I suddenly recalled that this place has no air conditioning. No matter. There were fans, including one box fan pointed at the band. No one there seemed to mind the heat. And there were misters just outside the door, so you could step out for a moment and cool off. I got a beer (friendly staff there, by the way), and said hello to some people I hadn’t seen in years. Clearly there was some kind of sale on hair dye somewhere nearby, with green and purple being the colors of choice. Wonderful! Those are my favorite colors.

You might know Leslie Knauer from her work in Precious Metal and Kanary. Kanary was how I got turned onto her music. That was the second band I saw after moving to Los Angeles (the first was Kelly’s Lot) more than twenty years ago (holy shit, time is flying). Sunset Junction Band, like Kanary, is a trio (though it wasn’t always). Guitar, bass, drums. The bass is stand-up acoustic, which made me happy. At 4:42 p.m., Leslie called out, “Yes, we’re ready.” She mentioned how the name of the band had changed (they used to be called Naked Hand Dance), but that she was a bit leery of the new name. “It sounds like it could be successful,” she explained. They kicked off their set with a cool cover of The Mavericks’ “Come Unto Me.” That was followed by a somewhat new song, a fun and playful tune that had something of a Bo Diddley rhythm, with drummer Dave Alvarado providing the beat. Sunset Junction Band also did a nice rendition of John Prine’s delightful “In Spite Of Ourselves,” a surprise, with bassist Al TeMan singing the second vocal part. The strangest choice of covers was Klaus Nomi’s “Total Eclipse,” which was a whole lot of fun. A good chunk of the set, however, was made up of songs from the Kanary days, including “Do You Swear,” which featured a powerful vocal performance. Would you expect anything less from Leslie Knauer? “Can’t Stop Crying” is one of my favorite songs from the Kanary days, and it was so good to hear it again. “Something Beautiful” is another of my favorite Kanary songs, one I put on a couple of mix CDs. The version they played yesterday was quite a bit different from those earlier versions, particularly on drums. But I was digging it. After that one, Leslie said: “I love my band. They follow me wherever I go.” They wrapped up their set with “Don’t Be Scared.” Their set ended at 5:28 p.m.

A break between bands gave me a moment to get another beer, and catch up a bit with folks. And then at 6:01 p.m., Princess Frank shouted “Happy Sunday!” Indeed, it was. If you live in Los Angeles, you’ve likely seen Princess Frank at some point. I first met him back in the days of Heartkour, Holland Greco’s project following the end of The Peak Show. For a while now, Princess Frank has been doing a one-man rock band gig. His set yesterday consisted of several original tunes, with a bluesy rock edge and some excellent and often wild vocal work. He also delivered some good covers, including a seriously cool version of “Helter Skelter” that felt at first like a deconstruction of the song, then a rebuilding of it, with only the necessary elements, delivered with passion, unleashed in an exciting way. He also covered The Beatles’ “Oh! Darling,” as well as The Doors’ “Love Me Two Times” and Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” He concluded his set with a cover of the Misfits’ “Where Eagles Dare,” getting some help on vocals from a guy sporting a Misfits T-shirt. Princess Frank joked a few times during his set that every Sunday he is there to harass people, so show up next week for the best harassment you’ll ever experience.

Here are a few photos from the show:

Sunset Junction Band performing "Come Unto Me"
"Forgive Me"
"Forgive Me"
"Don't Be Scared"
Princess Frank
Princess Frank
Princess Frank performing "Where Eagles Dare"

The Thirsty Crow is located at 2939 Sunset Blvd. in Los Angeles, California.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Freedy Johnston and Amilia K. Spicer at The Federal Bar, 7-28-19 Concert Review

Freedy Johnston
Today was a day of music, just exactly what I needed after a 70-hour work week and watching too many news programs (I keep telling myself to take a break from the horror show in our nation’s capital, but it is just impossible). I started the day at The Federal Bar, where Freedy Johnston and Amilia K. Spicer played as part of the ongoing Mimosa Music Series. It was a nice, mellow crowd. And after quickly drinking two mimosas, I was feeling rather mellow myself. This was my first time seeing Freedy Johnston, at least as far as I can recall (my memory is not as sharp as I would like it to be). He has a couple of new singles out – “20 Radios” and “Tryin’ To Move On.” Will a new album soon follow? I hope so.

Amilia K. Spicer was up first, and at 11:29 p.m., concert series host Gary Calamar came out to introduce her. “Welcome to Once Upon A Time In North Hollywood,” he joked, referring to the new Quentin Tarantino film (which I still need to see). Then, as she plugged in her acoustic guitar, Amilia told the crowd, “First time I’ve had a soundcheck at 9 o’ clock.” She kicked off her set with “Train Wreck,” which had a sweet, pleasant sound. I was especially digging the mandolin. The band backing her included electric guitar, electric bass, mandolin (sometimes violin), drums and backing vocals. Check out these lyrics: “Our love is like a train wreck, a train wreck/I saw it coming/Heard a big noise, and I started running/Now I’m looking back/It’s sliding off the track/Nothing left to see here/Nothing left to see/Of you and me.” “Shotgun” was kind of an intriguing tune, beginning with some moody atmospheric stuff on mandolin and electric guitar. “Shotgun, I’m riding shotgun/Because everybody’s got one/Around here.” One of my favorites from her set was a new song that I’m guessing is called “Radio,” this one featuring violin. Afterward she told the audience, “I usually talk a lot more, but not today, apparently.” She added, jokingly, “These have all been dance numbers.” The next song, however, did get some people dancing. It was a cool, jazzy number with the mandolin being a prominent element. But the most beautiful songs of her set came when she put down her guitar and switched to keyboard. I was particularly moved by “Down To The Bone.” Her set concluded at 12:16 p.m.

It was only eleven minutes before Gary Calamar was back on stage to introduce Freedy Johnston, mentioning his 1994 album This Perfect World, which is now available on vinyl. Gary quipped that the world isn’t perfect, but at least that song is. And that’s it, really, isn’t it? The world is a mess, with a racist authoritarian twit occupying the White House, and his followers eager to destroy everything that is good about this country. But for the length of a song, the world can be perfect. The world created by that song, that is. That’s why I just can’t get my fill of music these days. Anyway, when Freedy Johnston took the stage, he told the audience, “We’re probably going to be too loud for you here.” He then kicked off his set with “Don’t Fall In Love With A Lonely Girl,” a rockin’ tune from Rain On The City, just what I needed. After that song, Freedy joked that they were going to have a child ventriloquist come out, referring to a short microphone stand in the center of the stage, which he then moved to the side. As I mentioned, Freedy Johnston has a couple of new singles out, and he followed “Don’t Fall In Love With A Lonely Girl” with one of them, “Tryin’ To Move On.” It’s a fun rock number, and his drummer and bass player provided backing vocals, leading Freedy to say afterward, “Those boys can really sing, can’t they?

To celebrate the vinyl release of This Perfect World, he played a few songs from that album, including “Evie’s Tears” and the title track. Those were followed by Freedy’s other new song, “20 Radios.” He brought up the fact that the beat to that song has been used quite a bit, and that he is well aware of it. He also did a cover of Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman,” breaking for a moment when his voice – as he said – suddenly sounded like Grover. He added that he hoped someone got it on video. Did someone? I don’t know. Following that song, he thanked the audience and jokingly asked to be considered for their next corporate event. He then wrapped up the set with “Bad Reputation,” also from This Perfect World. Except that his set was not over then. He was about to leave when he remembered that he’d planned to do a song with Amilia K. Spicer. And so he invited her up, telling the crowd this song would be the encore. What they did together was a really sweet rendition of “Hickory Wind.” The show ended at 1:16 p.m.

Freedy Johnston Set List
  1. Don’t Fall In Love With A Lonely Girl
  2. Tryin’ To Move On
  3. The Lucky One
  4. Evie’s Tears
  5. This Perfect World
  6. 20 Radios
  7. Neon Repairman
  8. Wichita Lineman
  9. Bad Reputation
  10. Hickory Wind
Here are a few photos from the show:

Amilia K. Spicer performing "Train Wreck"
"Down To The Bone"
Amilia K. Spicer
Freedy Johnston performing "The Lucky One"
"Bad Reputation"
"Hickory Wind"

The Federal Bar is located at 5303 Lankershim Blvd., in North Hollywood, California.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Blue Moon Marquee: “Bare Knuckles & Brawn” (2019) CD Review

Every day, the racism of a certain segment of our nation’s population becomes less and less bearable. A third of this country, whether they admit it or not, whether they recognize it or not, are fascists. People are becoming uglier and uglier as they give voice to their most twisted thoughts, as they celebrate their worst qualities. The news is depressing. So we turn to music for a little escape, for a reminder of what humanity can be. Bare Knuckles & Brawn, the new release from Blue Moon Marquee, is a total fucking delight, offering us some swinging jazz and gypsy blues numbers, all original material. Blue Moon Marquee is the Canadian duo of A.W. Cardinal on vocals and guitar, and Jasmine Colette on upright bass and vocals. Joining them on this release are Darcy Phillips on piano and organ, Jerry Cook on saxophone and clarinet, Jimmy “Hollywood” Badger on drums, and Jack Garton on trumpet.

The album gets off to an excellent start with “Big Black Mamba,” featuring a great, rough vocal delivery and some delicious work on piano. “I asked for water/She brought me gasoline.” Those touches on horn have a classic sound and style, which I appreciate. All the elements of this track work to pull me out of the current hellish reality, and into some alternate world, where problems are not insurmountable, and everyone is kind of on our side, a world I want to spend more and more of my time. It’s a very cool song. Things then start swinging with “Smoke Rings For My Rider.” Oh man, the horns have a big band flavor right from the start, which is wonderful. And I dig that cheerful, delicious bass line. Then those vocals come at you straight from the coolest movie never made, you know? And that lead on horn is perfect. This is a great number to get you dancing, and is one of my favorite tracks. “Fever Flickering Flame” has another catchy rhythm, and some wonderful stuff on keys. There is some kind of joy to this music, and it seems to be inherent to the style, even as the songs touch on some serious subjects. It is in the very pulse of the music, and if you let it pull you in, you can’t help but feel some of that joy yourself. And I just love that little moment on bass toward the end.

“Hard Times Hit Parade” comes on all sly and sexy, emerging out of the smoke of a city street at night, some place where you might meet poverty or death. Jasmine takes lead vocals on this one, and there is something almost a seductive about her vocal performance. “Play the fool/Go on, spend all your time/Cursing out the other guy/Who laughs when it falls apart.” This track features some nice work on organ. Then A.W. Cardinal offers his own enticing vocal performance on “As I Lay Dying,” the song from which comes the album’s title. “She brings me flowers, fresh and wild/She lays them down by my side/She rests her hands onto mine/And tells me that the world will be just fine.” That’s followed by “High Noon,” which kicks off with the drums, sounding like they’re leading into a wild big band number. This track has a totally groovy and cool rhythm, and is a whole lot of fun. There is a wonderful lead on guitar. Then the horn comes in like from some western frontier saloon, and spirals around, moving the air and our bodies, controlling us like a snake charmer.

“The Red Devil Himself” offers lighter, delicious fare with some wonderful jazzy stuff on guitar. Paul Pigat joins the duo on guitar on this track. I think it would be incredibly difficult to listen to this song without smiling; try it, let me know how you do. “Well, I’m going away/Everything wrong going on around here/Well, I just can’t stay.” Those of us in the habit of using our brains in the United States often find ourselves asking, “Won’t someone tell me how long will this trouble last?” Well, it seems that great guitar work on this track will help push the troubles into the past. We’ll be dancing again! Things then take a bluesy turn with “Big Smoke,” which is about the fires and floods resulting from climate change. Check out these lyrics: “Well, there ain’t nobody here to save you now/I said, lord lord lord/Lord, I’m so tired/I said, Lord, lord, lord/Lord, I’m so tired/Well, the lord told me/Yeah, well so am I.” Oh yes, we’re all exhausted at this point. Sometimes it feels that optimism has died under the crushing weight of our current problems, but music continues to give me hope.

Jasmine sings lead on “52nd Street Strut,” and I’m not sure which is cooler, her voice or those horns. They work together to create another of this disc’s highlights. This tune has a ridiculously cool vibe, and it just gets better as it goes. “Hold my fur coat/While I beat ‘em both/New Orleans jazz/Backing drum track.” That instrumental section will make you a cooler person just from listening to it. You’ll know what I mean when you hear it. Oh, those horns! That’s followed by “Wayward,” another groovy number that takes you for a ride in its backseat. “Don’t you try and stop me/Don’t you fuss or fight.” Ah, I wouldn’t think of it! The disc then concludes with “Lost & Wild,” a late-night tune with some classic vibes and more enjoyable work on piano. “Lord knows I’ve got no answers/Not once have I heard reply/All I know for certain/There’s an angel in your eyes.”

CD Track List
  1. Big Black Mamba
  2. Smoke Rings For My Rider
  3. Fever Flickering Flame
  4. Hard Times Hit Parade
  5. As I Lay Dying
  6. High Noon
  7. The Red Devil Himself
  8. Big Smoke
  9. 52nd Street Strut
  10. Wayward
  11. Lost & Wild 
Bare Knuckles & Brawn was released on July 19, 2019 here in the United States (and on June 28 in Canada, because Canada is just a better place).

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Cheyenne James: “Burn It Up” (2018) CD Review

Cheyenne James is a vocalist with power and passion and a great taste for the blues. Her latest release, Burn It Up, features a good mix of original material and covers. Joining her on this album are Rock Romano on bass and ukulele, Dave Carter on guitar, Mark May on guitar, Jim Brady on drums, Steve Krase on harmonica, Randy Wall on keys, Eric Demmer on saxophone, and Lamar Boulet on trumpet and flugelhorn.

Cheyenne opens the album with a cover of “Grits Ain’t Groceries (All Around The World),” written by Titus Turner and made famous by Little Milton. This is some fun rhythm and blues, with a classic vibe, a wonderfully funky rhythm and a horn section, the track driven by a powerful, lively vocal performance. There is something delightfully goofy about the chorus to this tune: “Because you know I love you, baby/Oh, you know I love you, baby/And if I don't love you baby, I tell ya/Grits ain't grocery/Eggs ain't poultry/And Mona Lisa was a man.” Someone once explained to me what grits are, but, well, I don’t remember. I grew up in Massachusetts, you understand. There is so much energy to this tune, not just in the vocals, but in the guitar, the horns, the rhythm section. This is a track to wake you up, get your blood pumping, a perfect opener. It’s followed by an original tune, “Gypsy Mama.” This one also has a great, moving rhythm, but before that’s even established we are treated to some nice bluesy harmonica playing. And there is more of that throughout the track. At some points it really is a duet, with the harmonica being the second set of vocals. There is also more lively guitar work. This is a number to get your feet tapping. We need as much joy as we can get these days, right? “I’m your gypsy mama, baby, moving on down the road/Ain’t got nowhere to be, ain’t got nowhere to go.”

“I Didn’t Know” begins with some cool, laid-back bluesy guitar. But it is when the song kicks in that I really start to dig it, particularly because of the fantastic work from the horn section, which is just delicious. And then at the end the horns are the focus during that groovy, delightful jam. This track also features a kick-ass vocal performance that I love. “Don’t you touch me, thought I couldn’t tell/You can pack your shit and go straight down to hell.” This is one of my personal favorites. It’s followed by another original tune, “Lay Me Down,” which has an interesting and wonderful style. Certainly she has the blues here, singing “Lost most of my friends/Can’t pay my bills/Can’t do much of nothing except choke down these pills.” I also really like the work on keys here, particularly toward the end.

Cheyenne James delivers a cool rendition of “Let’s Go Get Stoned.” This is one of the songs that I first heard performed by Joe Cocker on the Mad Dogs And Englishman album. Since then, of course, I’ve heard a whole lot of great versions, including those by Ray Charles and Big Mama Thornton, as well as the original by The Coasters. This rendition by Cheyenne James features some nice work on keys and electric guitar, plus a really good, loose lead on saxophone. And of course Cheyenne gives us another dynamic vocal performance. That’s followed by “Rock,” which has a more relaxed blues groove, but still a powerful vocal performance. This track features more good stuff on harmonica, but it is the bass line that I tend to focus on when listening to this tune. I get kind of caught up in that bass line.

“Roll Your Coal” features the horns right from the start, and some jazzy work on guitar which I like. I also really dig Cheyenne’s varied vocal delivery here. This one was written by Russell Mayes and Cheyenne James. Then her cover of “Steal My Heart Away” has a somewhat different sound and vibe from the rest of the album, in large part because of the presence of ukulele, which gives it a sweeter feel. This track also features some nice work on keys. “What Does It Mean” is a mellower and moving song. The guitar part that opens it reminds me quite a bit of “Taurus” by Spirit (which Led Zeppelin borrowed for “Stairway To Heaven”). “I’m so choked up, I can hardly breathe/So tell me, does this mean that you love me.” The disc then concludes with a cover of Freddie King’s “You Know That You Love Me (But You Never Tell Me So),” here titled “You Know You Love Me Baby,” another fun tune with an enjoyable rhythm and more excellent work on harmonica. “The way you twist when you walk and the way you smile/Makes me want to be around you every once in a while.”

CD Track List
  1. Grits Ain’t Groceries
  2. Gypsy Mama
  3. I Didn’t Know
  4. Lay Me Down
  5. Let’s Go Get Stoned
  6. Rock
  7. Roll Your Coal
  8. Steal My Heart Away
  9. What Does It Mean
  10. You Know You Love Me Baby
Burn It Up was released on October 30, 2018.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Lil Sue And The Cow Tippers: “Lil Sue And The Cow Tippers” (2019) CD Review

I had an excellent time a few months ago at the Roots Roadhouse Festival, and met some good folks, some who were performing that day and some that were in the audience. Though many of those who were in the audience could have just as easily been on the stage. Such was the case with a couple of folks from the band Lil Sue And The Cow Tippers that I got to talking with between acts. They gave me a copy of their self-titled debut CD, and I finally had a chance to listen to it today (yeah, sometimes work and other things get in the way of music). This EP contains a totally enjoyable group of honky tonk country and rockabilly tunes to raise your spirits and perhaps get you on the dance floor. You all have a dance floor in your homes, right? The band is made up of Susan “Lil Sue” Barrera on vocals, Danny Herrera on lead guitar, Nick Green on steel guitar and acoustic guitar, Tony “T-Mac” Macias on upright bass and backing vocals, and Aaron Fleener on drums.

The disc opens with a lively rendition of Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” here titled “Cheatin’ Heart.” Susan Barrera’s vocals have a bright, appealing sound, and it is her voice that drives the song and draws you in. There is also some nice work on guitar, though I think that lead part could have been a bit longer. This track is certainly a good start to the EP. It’s followed by another cover, this one of “Two Long Years,” written by Hugh Ashley and recorded by Janis Martin. This one also features a really good vocal performance that has a delightfully playful quality at times. I really like the way this song moves. And in fact this entire disc has something of a breezy, bopping feel. You know, no time to stand still. If we keep moving, keep grooving, maybe all the other stuff will just fade away and the world will be a brighter, more cheerful place.

We then get the first original number of the CD, “How Can You Love Me,” written by Tony Macias and Susan Barrera. Aaron Fleener gets this one going on drums, establishing a good groove and getting the song off to a fun start. It’s about receiving attention from someone you’re not at all interested in, and wondering what’s up with the guy. I love these lines: “How come you will when I won’t/How come you do when I don’t.” This track features some wonderful work on guitar, and is my personal favorite on the disc. It’s followed by another fun one, a cover of Hank Thompson’s “A Six Pack To Go.” How can you not love a song that opens with the line “Hey, Mr. Bartender, please don’t be so slow”? And I dig Susan’s delivery of the line, drawing it out just a bit. This is about enjoying your Saturday, even if you don’t, say, have money to cover your rent. A song about living in the moment, and not having any cares, even when you know trouble will be heading your way come morning. This track features some delightful work on bass and on steel guitar.

Lil Sue And The Cowtippers deliver a fun rendition of Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah, I Love Her So,” here titled “Hallelujah, I Love Him So.” Of course, there is no horn section here, but there is some nice stuff on steel guitar, and it works so well. I especially like that interaction between the steel guitar and electric guitar halfway through the track. That’s followed by the disc’s other original composition, “Where Were You,” written by Tony Macias and Susan Barrera. This one is about worrying that the man you love is being less than faithful. “Your tender loving/Is one of a kind/Don’t take that away, I’ll go out of my mind/Hey, hey there, baby, where were you last night.” Oh, how can you leave that woman at home, guessing? So cruel. The disc concludes with a seriously cool rendition of “5-10-15 Hours,” here simply titled “5-10-15.” It was written by Rudy Toombs, and originally recorded by Ruth Brown. Here Lil Sue And The Cow Tippers get good and bluesy, and Susan really digs into it vocally, belting out some of the lyrics. So delicious! This disc was just what I needed today after being rudely awakened by some men working right outside my window at 6 a.m. (hey, isn’t there some city ordinance against that kind of thing?). Instead of following my initial desire to throw empty beer bottles at them, I put on this disc, and within moments my anger was gone. Isn’t it wonderful what good music can do for us?

CD Track List
  1. Cheatin’ Heart
  2. Two Long Years
  3. How Can You Love Me
  4. A Six Pack To Go
  5. Hallelujah, I Love Him So
  6. Where Were You
  7. 5-10-15 
Lil Sue And The Cow Tippers was released on January 19, 2019.

Monday, July 15, 2019

I See Hawks In L.A & The Good Intentions: “Hawks With Good Intentions” (2019) CD Review

One of my absolute favorite voices in music today belongs to Rob Waller, lead singer of I See Hawks In L.A. There is something so true about the way he delivers a lyric, whether it’s a serious folk or country number that makes you reflect on your own life, or one of those fun (and sometimes funny) lively jam rock tunes, both of which the band does so well. His voice can soothe you, and can energize you. And Rob’s voice is just one of the elements that make the Hawks one of the best Los Angeles bands going. Their harmonies, Paul Lacques’ work on lead guitar, Paul Marshall’s wonderful bass lines, Victoria Jacobs’ grooves on drums, and of course the songwriting all contribute to the group’s great appeal. The band’s new album, Hawks With Good Intentions, finds them joining efforts with The Good Intentions, the British folk and country duo of Peter Davies and Gabrielle Monk. The two groups first met several years ago during The Good Intentions’ first tour of the U.S., and since then have shared the occasional stage. Now they’re sharing songwriting credits. The album features all original material, co-written by members of both groups. It has a somewhat different feel from other I See Hawks In L.A. albums, in as much as it really focuses on the folk aspect of their music. But as some of their sweeter folk and country songs are among my personal favorites of the band’s entire catalogue, I love this approach here.

The album opens with a sweet-sounding and fairly straightforward folk song, “Blue Heaven,” written by Peter Davies, Paul Lacques and Rob Waller. It’s a song about being musicians, and seems to celebrate the friendship between the two bands, with Hawks even mentioned in the first stanza: “Do you remember the times when we used to say/That there was nothing but songs and dreams and days/We had guitars and we flew with the Hawks, and hey/It was blue, blue heaven.” Peter Davies sings lead on this one, and Paul Lacques adds some wonderful touches on dobro. A nice opening number. Rob Waller then sings lead on the following track, “Things Like This” also written by Peter Davies, Paul Lacques and Rob Waller. This is a song in which a highway plays a central role, certainly not an unusual element to Hawks’ music. This is one of those wonderful folk songs that tell a story of a troubled man. Check out these lines: “Neighbors said that he'd been having trouble off and on/Lost his job in China Lake, lost his mind at dawn/Sheriff said there'd only been three murders all year long/Things like this don't happen around here.” I also really like those backing vocals, like witnesses to the story.

Rob Waller and Peter Davies share lead vocals on “Rolling The Boxcars,” Rob’s voice rising and moving right from the song’s opening moments. And together their harmonies are wonderful, particularly with Paul Marshall and Gabrielle Monk joining in. This is one of my favorite tracks, and is the first song that Peter, Paul and Rob wrote together. It touches on some perennial folk subjects, like gambling and jail and being broke, yet still having hope. It’s a folk song you might be singing along with before too long, one of those songs that just feel good to take part in, you know? Raise your voice and join in. “Rolling the boxcars, rolling the boxcars/Find me an angel to bless my bones.” By the way, rolling boxcars means getting sixes on both dice. Gabe Witcher joins them on fiddle on “Rambling Girl,” a pretty song written by Peter Davies and Paul Lacques. Peter’s lead vocals have a gentle and moving quality. “And the only thing he will ever crave/Is a lonely road to an empty grave/And pretty girls like you to lay him down.” This one too features some gorgeous harmonies.

“Steel Rails” is a folk song about trains, and about how time has left the trains behind, though the romantic notion of traveling the rails persists. It is interesting that trains automatically create these wonderful, positive feelings in us, when many of us have never – or rarely – traveled any great distances by train. Songs about trains are always appealing. Will they still be when trains are a thing of the past? Probably. “Steel rails/Still sing their lonesome song/But the times/The times are moving on.” Rob Waller sings lead on this one. Then Victoria Jacobs sings lead on “Hills On Fire,” a song she wrote with Paul Lacques. This one has a gentle, sweet, somewhat mellow vibe, and is about the California fires (which are only going to get worse if something isn’t done about the climate change crisis). Usually a song that mentions sirens singing is referring to mythology, so I like that Victoria delivers a play on that idea in the line “The sirens sing a song for the coyotes in flight,” the sirens here obviously belonging to fire engines. This song features some gorgeous backing vocals, as well as some nice work on guitar. Richie Lawrence adds some sweet playing on accordion on this track. That’s followed by “White Cross,” which has a good, kind of slow folk groove. Rob Waller sings lead on this one. “Good friend, if you’re a gambler/Don’t bet on me too long.  Paul Lacques really gets a chance to shine on this one, and I love Gabrielle Monk’s backing vocals. “I know the angels love me, even though I did them wrong.”

“Flying Now” is a beautifully sad song, with an optimism one doesn’t necessarily believe. Check out these lines, which open the song: “My bed has been made/With the last of my dreams/I can see a few stars/Through the wind in the trees/I'm flying now.” And I love these lines: “The girl that I loved/She was faithless and cruel/Well, that suited me fine/I'm a natural fool/But I'm flying now.” Peter Davies’ vocals have a gentle yet passionate sound that is wonderful. Richie Lawrence adds more sweet work on accordion on this track. And I really like the bass line, which has a gentle, grounded quality, as if to say, Let him believe he’s flying, I’ll be here to catch him if he actually does. Peter Davies also sings lead on “Epiphany On Town Hall Square.” The line from this one that really stands out for me is “My childhood grips me still,” something I think will hold meaning for everyone. This track also features some good work on lap steel. The album then concludes with “Will You Watch Over Me From Above,” another sweet and beautiful song, this one with Rob Waller on lead vocals. “And why a summer day/To board that westbound train/I guess she couldn't wait for the evening/Sweet summer evening.”

CD Track List
  1. Blue Heaven
  2. Things Like This
  3. Rolling The Boxcars
  4. Rambling Girl
  5. Steel Rails
  6. Hills On Fire
  7. White Cross
  8. Flying Now
  9. Epiphany On Town Hall Square
  10. Will You Watch Over Me From Above
Hawks With Good Intentions was released on June 20, 2019.

Lauren Henderson: “Alma Oscura” (2019) CD Review

Lauren Henderson is a jazz vocalist and songwriter based in New York. She released her first CD in 2011, a self-titled album that featured some Latin and jazz standards. Her new album, Alma Oscura, features all original material, written by Lauren Henderson, Michael Thurber and Leo Sidran. Some are sung in English, some in Spanish. The group backing her includes Michael Thurber on bass, Sullivan Fortner on piano, Damian Sim on piano, Allan Mednard on drums, Joe Saylor on drums, Moses Patrou on percussion, Tessa Lark on violin, Lavinia Pavlish on violin, Brendan Speltz on violin, Charles Overton on harp, Gabe Schneider on guitar, Mark Dover on clarinet, Emi Ferguson on flute, Jon Lampley on trumpet, Rose Hashimoto on viola and Tara Hanish on cello.

The disc opens with “From The Inside Out,” an absolutely enchanting number. There is something so sexy about Lauren’s delivery. She grabbed me from the moment this song started. And she has plenty of good lyrics to deliver, like these lines: “You burn just like a fire/You cut just like a blade/You walk along a wire/And claim you’re unafraid/When you’ve been profane/And when you’ve been devout/I can feel your pain/From the inside out.” I love the way she holds onto the word “burn” there.  Oh man, how can you not fall for her voice? And then suddenly, her voice gives way to a male vocalist, his voice somehow matching that sexy vibe of hers. That is Leo Sidran, who composed the song. I love the strings backing that section. Then, when I figure, okay, the song can’t get any better, a horn rises from the wind and takes the track to another gorgeous level. The two voices then join together in a duet. This is a wonderful track from beginning to end, certainly a highlight of the album. It’s followed by “Something  Bigger,” a sweet, somewhat fanciful number written by Michael Thurber. It contains some playful lyrics, particularly at the beginning: “Cheeks and eyes, lips and nose/None of these are things I chose.” Yet the song touches on a serious matter, and one that is especially relevant today (when the so-called president used yet more racist language to attack certain women in Congress): “Class and race, hateful names/Those are lies, hurtful games/They are small/They are so petty and small/I am more, I am something bigger.”

“Alma Oscura,” the album’s title track, begins with some pretty work on flute, and features a gorgeous vocal performance. This one is sung in Spanish, and there is something intriguing, compelling about this track, particularly because of her vocals. But also that work on bass functions to keep me enraptured, especially the use of pauses. There are also nice touches on piano underneath that pretty lead on flute halfway through the track. Then “El Arbol” begins with a great explosion of sound. This song, written by Lauren Henderson, has a stimulating rhythm and vibe, and features some excellent work on piano. This one is also sung in Spanish, as is “Ven Muerte,” which follows it. This one has a romantic sound, a timeless sound that is tremendously appealing, especially with the strings. I also love the lead on horn. “Ven Muerte” was written by Michael Thurber, apparently for a production of Macbeth (which, yes, makes me love it all the more).

“Where Are You Now?” is an interesting song that has a somewhat haunting sound at times, and features a mesmerizing vocal performance. “When all the dust has settled/And all your cards are played/Was it worth the price that you’ve paid/It’s too late now/You’ve lost control.” The strings rise up through the mist in a beautiful way. This is another of my favorite tracks. It was written by Michael Thurber. It is followed by “Protocol,” yet another of the disc’s highlights, this one composed by Lauren Henderson. “Protocol” is compelling, building in some unexpected and absolutely wonderful ways, such as when the rhythm is established, and then when the strings come in. Fantastic work there. There is some wonderful stuff on piano as well. This track has a timeless and alluring sound. “Tired and contrite/I repent for every night/Love was molded to hate/And stained our beautiful fate.” The album then concludes with “Dream,” a song with a late-night vibe, Lauren’s voice supported by piano, a perfect closing number.

CD Track List
  1. From The Inside Out
  2. Something Bigger
  3. Alma Oscura
  4. El Arbol
  5. Ven Muerte
  6. Where Are You Now?
  7. Protocol
  8. Dream
Alma Oscura was released on June 28, 2019.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Eilen Jewell: “Gypsy” (2019) CD Review

Eilen Jewell is an incredibly talented singer and songwriter based in Boise, Idaho. Her style of music is folk, with strong country elements as well as a bit of blues. On her most recent release, Down Hearted Blues, which came out in 2017, she offered covers of some delicious blues numbers. Now on her new album, Gypsy, she goes back to original material (with one exception). She plays acoustic guitar, electric guitar and organ on this release. The band backing her includes her husband Jason Beek on drums and backing vocals, Jerry Miller on electric guitar and mandolin, and Shawn Supra on upright bass. There are also several special guests on various tracks.

The album opens with “Crawl,” which immediately establishes a good strong beat before Eilen Jewell’s vocals come in. Her voice here has a lot of country in it, and it is that powerful, raw, serious country, the kind that you can dig into, that digs into you. The music also has more than a dash of blues, as she sings “I want solitude/Don’t want to be alone/Want to put down roots/Want to be a rolling stone.” This track features some nice work by Katrina Nicolayeff on fiddle. And then that electric guitar is seriously cool, that jam reminding me a bit of CCR. It’s a solid track to get things going. That’s followed by “Miles To Go,” a beautiful song with a mellower folk vibe and some good work on bass. Of course, her vocals are the key to this track being one of the disc’s highlights. I love her honest delivery here. And there are lyrics that could work for any period of time: “I’ve got a wandering soul/It takes me down the line/Ain’t got a nickel, baby, ain’t got a lousy dime/Ain’t got a nickel, ain’t got a lousy dime/Lord, I got plenty of these hard times.” Another line that stands out is “Miles and miles to go before I sleep.” Now there’s a line that should be a part of anyone’s road trip mix tape.

Then we get into undeniable country territory with “You Cared Enough To Lie,” the disc’s only cover. It was written and originally recorded by Pinto Bennett, and also recorded by Reckless Kelly (a band that was formed in Jewell’s home state of Idaho). “If you never really loved me, you cared enough to lie.” I can’t help but think of the scoundrel in the White House whenever I hear a song about dishonesty, though I don’t think that bastard cares enough (or at all) about anyone other than himself. His lies are self-serving, and he’s been doing that shit all his life. Remember how he called reporters in the 1980s, pretending to be John Barron, his own spokesman? Anyway, this track features more nice work on fiddle, and some cool stuff on steel guitar. It is followed by one of my favorite tracks, “79 Cents (The Meow Song),” which is about the inequality of pay between men and women. As serious as the subject it, the song is a total delight. “But don’t complain/Or they’ll call you insane/People call me left-wing swine.”  What I love is the way she almost celebrates being called that, for then the backing vocalists join her in singing, “Left-wing swine, left-wing swine.” If you’ve been paying attention at all lately, if you are even slightly conscious, you probably think that men suck. Hell, I am a man, and I can’t help but think we suck too, what with men like Donald Trump, Jeffrey Epstein and Brett Kavanaugh all enjoying positions of power and some sort of inexplicable immunity, getting away with horrible crimes against women (though it looks like maybe finally one of them will be taken down). By the way, the “Meow” part of the song mentioned in the title is a direct reference to that rapist in the White House. Eilen Jewell sings, “He’s grabbing us right in the meow.” What we desperately need is some strong female energy in the White House. I am fervently hoping that a woman will be leading our nation after the next election.

“Beat The Drum” eases in at first, but soon comes on strong, like a force that is moving at us and shows no signs of weakness. Good thing too, for we need that strength to pick us up, to carry us through. “If we resist, we win the fight/If we don’t persist, our hope will die/Our hope will die, our hope will die.” And there is more good work on fiddle. This is yet another strong track. “I believe in you and me/I believe in the dream.” Eilen Jewell then gives us a prettier, more delicate number, “Gypsy,” the album’s title track. This one has a comforting, relaxing effect on me, which I certainly appreciate (like a lot of you, I’ve been on edge lately). That’s followed by another unabashed country number, “These Blues.” “Some fine day these blues are going to leave me alone/But at least for now they’ve made themselves at home.”

“Working Hard For Your Love” is an interesting love song that has a somewhat darker country and blues sound. That’s followed by “Who Else But You,” a completely engaging song, intimate and revealing and beautiful, with Eilen’s vocals clearly in focus, the other musicians unobtrusive in their support of her. “Why do I play it all so safe/Why can’t I let my true face show/I don’t know, it seems I lost the way/But there’s one thing I’m still certain of/My love for you has no end.” This is yet another of my favorites. “Witness” is an adorable tune, with something of a classic rhythm. Then “Hard Times” is a bluesy song that addresses hard times directly: “Don’t want to be mad no more/Hard times, get away from my door/Don’t want to be scared no more/Hard times, get away from my door.” The album then concludes with “Fear,” a wonderful folk song that tells us “Don’t take fear to be your guide,” a good message to leave us with.

CD Track List
  1. Crawl
  2. Miles To Go
  3. You Cared Enough To Lie
  4. 79 Cents (The Meow Song)
  5. Beat The Drum
  6. Gypsy
  7. These Blues
  8. Working Hard For Your Love
  9. Who Else But You
  10. Witness
  11. Hard Times
  12. Fear
Gypsy is scheduled to be released on August 16, 2019 through Signature Sounds.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Melbreeze: “Amethyst” (2016/2019) CD Review

Melbreeze is a jazz vocalist who was born in Turkey and has her own distinct approach to music. On her new album, Amethyst, she takes familiar songs and gives them a new sound, a new flavor. The first thing I noticed, however, was the album’s striking cover, with that sexy purple wig. Interestingly, the cover is basically the same as an earlier release, Turquoise, the only difference being the color of the wig and title. Amethyst follows last year’s Animazonia, on which she gave her spin to Brazilian songs like “One Note Samba” and “How Insensitive.” On this one she is joined by Scott Kinsey on keys (Kinsey is also responsible for the arrangements), Gary Novak on drums, Jimmy Haslip on bass and backing vocals (Haslip also produced the album), Arto Tuncboyaciyan on percussion and backing vocals, James Zota Baker on guitar, Oz Noy on guitar, Jeff Richman on guitar, Doug Livingston on pedal steel guitar, Larry Koonse on guitar, Brad Dutz on percussion, Judd Miller on electric valve instrument, Bob Reynolds on saxophone and clarinet, and Naina Kundu on backing vocals.

As the disc’s first track starts, I know I’m in for something unusual. The song is Gershwin’s “Summertime,” a song I’ve heard hundreds of times, but it begins with a strong and simple dance beat, already unlike other versions I’ve heard over the years. The music then has a funky, jazzy feel, with keys being the prominent instrument. And this is all before any of the lyrics are sung. Her vocals have a relaxed, alluring quality. The tune goes into this odd, dreamy segment nearly halfway through. After that, the percussion is more unleashed, getting loose. There is also some really good work on guitar on this track. Based on that first track, I was wondering how Melbreeze would handle “Sound Of Silence,” which follows it. This one begins as you would expect it to – gently, with an acoustic sound. Perhaps it is delivered just a bit faster than usual, but other than that, it is fairly standard. However, when it kicks in, it takes on an electronic sound, and a pronounced beat. Yet the vocals remain pretty. That’s followed by another Gershwin tune, “The Man I Love.” This too has a different feel from other versions I’ve heard, with a cool, cheerful rhythm. And I absolutely love the clarinet, helping to make this one of my favorite tracks. The way it combines classic and current sounds and styles is wonderful. Plus, this track features some nice work on keys. In addition to all that, Melbreeze gives us an absolutely delightful vocal performance here. The more I listen to this rendition, the more I feel it is one of the best I’ve heard. I certainly recommend checking it out. Then she gives us a nice take on “God Bless The Child.” I particularly enjoy the bass in this rendition of the classic Billie Holiday song, and there is a good little jam in the middle of the track.

These days I often find myself saying, “Everything must change.” And it must change soon. Doesn’t it feel like we’re heading straight into trouble that is so great that once we’re there it will be too late to stop it or fix it? With gun violence, and the destruction of the environment, and with an administration so corrupt that scandals sit atop other scandals and yet nothing brings it to an end. It feels like we’re rushing into an abyss from which there will be no return. Everything must change. Melbreeze’s rendition of “Everything Must Change” features more good stuff on bass, and the work on keys is again prominent. “Everything must change/Nothing stays the same/Everyone will change/No one stays the same.” There is a cool, kind of funky instrumental section toward the end. While most of the songs Melbreeze has chosen to include on this release are oft-covered tunes, there is one song I don’t believe I’d heard before, “Sailor And Widow.” It was written and originally recorded by Keren Ann Zeidel. Melbreeze’s rendition has a dance beat and an interesting vocal delivery. That’s followed by “Cry Me A River.” The first version of “Cry Me A River” I ever heard was Joe Cocker’s (from Mad Dogs & Englishmen), and so it is to this rendition that I can’t help but compare all others. This version by Melbreeze is smoother, with a decent groove, and I like the jam, which features some good work on guitar. “Greensleeves” is such a beautiful piece of music, and Melbreeze’s rendition retains that beauty, while adding modern touches, including a beat. I really like this version, and the jam toward the end kind of rocks (something you probably wouldn’t expect from this song), with some great work on electric guitar.

There were a few things that drew me to this album. The first, as I mentioned, was the cover. The second was the presence of two Gershwin songs (you can never go wrong with Gershwin). But the main reason I wanted to hear this album was the inclusion of a Leonard Cohen song. Leonard Cohen is my favorite songwriter, and I am always excited to hear an artist’s take on his material. Melbreeze chooses “Hallelujah,” and yes, that’s an obvious choice, but still a good one. This version is unlike any other I’ve heard, beginning with percussion, and developing a loose, jazzy groove. It is nearly a minute before the vocals come in. And the song is delivered at a faster clip than usual. As you probably know, there are several verses to this song, and Leonard Cohen changed them over the years. Here Melbreeze chooses four verses for her rendition. The first verse she sings is, of course, the “secret chord” verse; the second is the “Your faith was strong, but you needed proof” verse; the third is the “I used to live alone before I knew ya” verse.  She ends with the “Maybe there’s a god above” verse. This version features some really cool stuff on bass. Well, it might seem an odd choice to follow Leonard Cohen with a Dolly Parton/Kenny Rogers duet, but that is what Melbreeze does, giving us “Islands In The Stream,” a song written by the Bee Gees (who recorded their own version nearly two decades after the Dolly Parton/Kenny Rogers rendition). The country is basically gone from this rendition, but I still like it. The disc then concludes with another interesting choice, John Waite’s “Missing You,” a song you just couldn’t avoid in 1984. Melbreeze’s rendition is fairly faithful to vibe of the original.

CD Track List
  1. Summertime
  2. The Sound Of Silence
  3. The Man I Love
  4. God Bless The Child
  5. Everything Must Change
  6. Sailor And Widow
  7. Cry Me A River
  8. Friendless
  9. Send In The Clowns
  10. Greensleeves
  11. Hallelujah
  12. Islands In The Streams
  13. Missing You 
Amethyst is scheduled to be released on July 26, 2019. It was released as an import a few years ago.