Thursday, July 2, 2020

Darlin’ Brando: “Also, Too…” (2020) CD Review

Darlin’ Brando is the project of Brandon Goldstein, a singer and songwriter and drummer based in Los Angeles. On his new album, Also, Too…, he delivers eight original songs, and is backed on most tracks by The Streise Bar Band, which is made up of Brian Clements on acoustic guitar and backing vocals, Adam Kurtz on pedal steel, Jeff Malinowski on bass, and Storm Rhode IV on electric guitar and nylon string guitar. A.J. Croce joins Darlin’ Brando on one track, and Edith Freni also provides some excellent vocal work on this album.

The album opens with “When You Don’t Fight,” written by Brandon Goldstein and Edith Freni. This track has a delicious country sound, including pedal steel. But the song’s opening lines are what get me into it. Here they are: “Loving is easy for a lot of folks/But when it comes to fighting, they’ll avoid it at any cost/Afraid that airing their grievances/Will subject their blissful romance to an early winter frost.” And then there is a play on the phrase “public displays of affection,” with Edith singing “Public displays of contention get a bad rap.” Yes, this song is a wonderful, twisted duet, and it reminds me of a rather unstable woman I once dated. She believed that fighting was a sign of passion and worried that we didn’t fight enough. As you can imagine, it was a lot of fun. But this song really is a lot of fun. “It’s not about who’s wrong or who’s right/How are you going to make ‘em see the light if you don’t fight?” It also has a playful ending. That’s followed by “Those Old Demons,” also written by Brandon Goldstein and Edith Freni. This one has a sweeter country vibe, in which Brandon likens himself to a cat, “happy just to curl up on her floor.” Edith Freni sings lead on the second verse, “When I moved back to town/They said that my old friend was in a bad place/I’m not the same person I was when I got out/And I’m afraid to see my old self in his face.” It is a look back, and there is a fight mentioned in this song’s lyrics too, but a different sort of fight: “Now those old demons are the demons that I still fight.”

“Therapy” is one of my personal favorites, in part because of that steady groove, and in part because of its lyrics. “So I reluctantly agreed to get some help for my brain/Oh therapy, you’re scaring me/They say that you’ll take care of me/But oh therapy, you’re scaring me/Only one month in and four whole sessions down/My strength is giving way, I don’t like where I’m bound.” Ah the terror of facing one’s own self. And does it change us? There is humor to this song, which comes from the song’s honesty. And who these days hasn’t considered that he or she might need therapy? Of course, during these days of isolation and social distancing, therapy is out of the question. Ah, we are on our own. This track features an excellent vocal performance, and more good work on pedal steel. Then in “Weeds & Flowers,” Brandon creates a vivid character, a woman you will feel you know before the song has been on too long, if you don’t already know her. “She’s most at home without a home/She’s not the kind of girl that nice boys take home to their mothers/Then again, she don’t like nice boys/She burns bridges like it’s a job that pays her well.” It ends up being a rather sweet song, with the main line being “It’s the weeds that make the most beautiful flowers.” This is one of two tracks to not feature The Streise Bar Band. Instead, Ryan Payton joins Darlin’ Brando on acoustic guitar, bass, pedal steel, mandolin and backing vocals.

“Crumbling Marriages” is a more upbeat number about divorce and disastrous relationships, shown in contrast to the relationship of the people delivering the observations. “But somehow we always find a way to make amends/We don’t play the silly, hurtful games of our friends.” That’s followed by “Last Call,” a lively country number about drinking, featuring some great stuff on piano. That’s A.J. Croce on piano, and his presence adds quite a lot to this track. And yes, it is certainly time to drink with abandon. And hell, if you know the bartender, line ‘em up, I am ready and eager. “With the first one down, I went straight for the other.”

These days we have to explain ourselves, don’t we? For folks seem ready to find offense in all sorts of words and phrases. Well, in this song Darlin’ Brando plays with that idea near the beginning, in the lines “I said, you’re right, I can’t believe that you are all mine/And I don’t mean in that possessive kind of way/And if I do, then you possess me just the same.” This one has a cheerful sound which I appreciate. “When you smile, I see things differently.” Oh yes, I know that feeling. This is a love song you can believe in. The album then ends with “The Old Man And The Kid,” a moving folk song about two men who meet at a bar, a crossroads of sorts, told from the perspective of the older guy. He offers some advice to the younger man, telling him: “Out smack in the middle of nowhere/I know life can seem unfair/There ain’t much out there that’s better than right here/So just enjoy that ice-cold beer.” This is the other track to feature Ryan Payton instead of The Streise Bar Band. I love the line “Well, we’re all a little lost, and few will be found.” Sounds just about right.

CD Track List
  1. When You Don’t Fight
  2. Those Old Demons
  3. Therapy
  4. Weeds & Flowers
  5. Crumbling Marriages
  6. Last Call
  7. Year One
  8. The Old Man And The Kid
Also, Too… was released on June 19, 2020.

Graham Stone Music: “Bad News” (2019) CD Review

Graham Stone Music is the project of singer and songwriter Graham Stoll, who is based in Richmond, Virginia. Last year he released his second album, Bad News, which features all original music. On this album, Graham plays acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, drums and banjo, in addition to providing the vocals. Sounds like a one-man band, yet he does get some help from Aubrey Stoll on vocals, Ben Lee on bass and vocals, Clayton Stoll on vocals and electric guitar, and Jordan Stoll on vocals and drums. The music on this album is a mix of folk, country and rock.

Bad News gets off to a strong start with “Tennessee Hills,” a rocking country number with a great thumping beat and a good amount of energy. It’s a song about rushing out of the city to be with his love in a more natural setting, something that is incredibly appealing, particularly these days. “Well, we found a little cabin in a holler down low/Where the wind blows easy and the creek runs slow/Yeah, you could try to find us, but you never will/We ain’t never gonna leave these Tennessee Hills.”  This track features some really good work on guitar and some nice backing vocals. That’s followed by “Little River.” The first line of this song grabbed me, in large part because I am eager to be able to purchase a house, to finally have a real home, particularly as repairs in my apartment have displaced me during a pandemic. Fun! Anyway, that first line is “I don’t need a house.” Graham sings, “I don’t need a house/Just to keep my soul in/And I don’t need a car/Because I don’t know where I’m going.” This one has an easygoing sound and pace. At a certain point it seems the song is ending, but in a way it is just beginning, for the next section is fantastic, those vocals working to raise our own energy, our spirits. I wish that section went on longer, for I needed a bit more to get there, you know? There is a good energy to “Oh Hell,” driven by that drum beat. “And I thank god that I have the breath to yell/Oh hell.” Indeed! I am yelling “Oh hell” a lot these days. The drum work is excellent on this track.

“Fighting For” is a song about life and the state of the world, a song that is addressed from one generation to the next, with Graham singing “Nobody knows what this life holds, but I guess maybe it’s better that way” and questioning the wisdom of bringing another life into the world. But the line that really stands out for me is “Sometimes I won’t know what to tell you, my son, and every day it’s getting worse.” That line certainly rings true. My girlfriend and I have been talking about how each generation thinks things are worse for the next. But what I’ve been wondering is, What if every generation is right, and things are just getting worse and worse? Looking around today, it would be difficult to argue that things are not getting worse. Who would have guessed we’d end up with a soulless, narcissistic sociopath occupying the White House at a time when we desperately need a leader? We are fucked. Yet there is something positive about this song. “Renew your mind ‘cause this world ain’t right, but we must finish the race.”

“Bad News,” the album’s title track, is a total delight. It is a cheerful, playful number about how things are terrible, which is perfect. The song’s first lines are “Bad news, bad news/It’s like the whole world’s got the blues/On every phone, TV and computer screen/And even certain gas pumps too/No matter where you turn it seems all you learn/Is that the world’s chock-full of bad news.” We need this. There is even a whistling section. I love this song. It totally shook me out of my blues. Before the end, he offers a bit of advice: “Sometimes the best thing to do/Is turn everything off and go walking outside/Don’t focus on all the bad news.” And yes, that’s just exactly what we’ve been doing. And of course, as he reminds us, love can help heal the world, and lord knows the world needs it. That’s followed by another of my favorite tracks, “Richmond Town.” It has the feel of an Irish folk tune, and when it kicks in, I nearly expect it to turn to punk, for it has that sort of build and the drums are right there, but it remains country, a lively rocking wonderful sort of country. Get off your ass and dance, damn it. This is so good.

The line “In fact, I can be a real piece of shit sometimes” near the beginning of “Celebrate” made me laugh out loud the first time I put this disc on. How is that for plain speaking? This track also features a great bass line. That’s followed by “Nobody,” which has a humor to it, a sense of play, and you might end up singing along before too long. “I’m a nobody, a nobody, I don’t care about nobody cares about me, buddy.” While listening to this song the first time, that Emily Dickinson poem popped into my head. You know, the one that reads “I’m nobody! Who are you?/Are you – Nobody – too?/Then there’s a pair of us! At the end of this track, there is a section of just vocals and percussion. By then, almost certainly you will be singing along. The album concludes with “Hauling Grass,” a rocking song about being on the road, shipping weed. Interestingly, this song brings us right back to the same geographical point that the opening track mentions in its first line, “southbound 81.” The first lines of this one are “Well, I’m rolling down the highway/Heading south on 81.” But this song tells a different tale. “‘Cause I’m tired of waiting on the world to change/I’m tired of unloading trucks for fucking minimum wage/And I did the math, it’ll take three runs/We can pay that bill and then I swear I’m done.”

CD Track List
  1. Tennessee Hills
  2. Little River
  3. Oh Hell
  4. Fighting For
  5. Bad News
  6. Richmond Town
  7. Celebrate
  8. Nobody
  9. Hauling Grass
Bad News was released on April 12, 2019.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Jeremiah Johnson: “Heavens To Betsy” (2020) CD Review

How could you possibly dislike an album titled Heavens To Betsy? Seriously. That expression brings a smile to my face, and if an artist chooses a title like that, he or she is going to have to deliver. Right? Well, Jeremiah Johnson certainly does on his new album, Heavens To Betsy (I am going to include that title as often as possible in this review), which follows his 2018 release, Straitjacket, and features mostly original material. The music is blues, but with a good amount of rock in its delivery. Joining the vocalist and guitarist on Heavens To Betsy are Frank Bauer on saxophone and backing vocals, Tony Anthonis on bass, Benet Schaeffer on drums, Rick Steff on keys, Tony Antonelli on percussion and backing vocals, and Pete Matthews on backing vocals.

Heavens To Betsy opens with “White Lightning,” which begins with a southern rock flavor, and is a song about one way of dealing with common struggles. “‘Cause in late December, when you start to remember/That the world gets cold again/In the back of your mind, in the dark of the night/You know you need a real good friend/White lightning.” I love that work on saxophone, and this track features a delicious lead on electric guitar as well. That’s followed by “Tornado,” a rock song complete with backing vocals shouting out the song’s title, and featuring some great work on electric guitar, particularly that lead toward the end. “You didn’t heed the warning/You’re going to take your chances/Now she’s on you like a shadow/With the sirens blasting/Here she comes/Here she comes/She’s a hot cup of coffee on a bumpy road.” I love that line, “She’s a hot cup of coffee on a bumpy road.”

“Soul Crush” has a heavy sound, and one of those slow steady grooves that make you nod your head in time. And of course it features more cool work on guitar. Then “Ecstasy” has a sweeter sound, especially in the vocal delivery. And that smooth work on saxophone is so good, and is raising my spirits. “You’re my world, my ocean, my sea/I’ve got something for you, you’ve got something for me.” Perhaps it’s partly my mood, but this song is seriously working for me. And I dig that bass line. That’s followed by “Forever And A Day,” another fun, rocking number.

As “American Steel” begins, it reminds me of certain funky rock numbers from the 1970s, and so right away I’m totally on board. It is a whole lot of fun, and has a seriously cool bass line along with some great work on guitar, making it one of my personal favorite tracks on Heavens To Betsy. Plus, it features some great touches on saxophone. This is one to add to my road trip play list. Listening to this song, I just want to get out on some long, straight highway where the speed limit is simply a suggestion, if posted at all, and the tank is full. If you are hitting the road this summer, take this song with you. It’s followed by another of Heavens To Betsy’s highlights, “Showdown,” a positive number with a delicious groove and a chorus that seems just about right for these times. “We’re heading for a showdown/Hey, we’re going to throw down/Ain’t gonna slow down/‘Til we make things right.” Oh yes. And there is so much that needs to be made right.

“Leo Stone” is an optimistic and cheerful number about becoming a father. “And I don’t want to be afraid/I got to stand tall for you every day.” There is a bit of a country flavor to this one. That’s followed by “Castles In The Air,” a rock song with a great driving beat, another of the disc’s highlights. Then “Long Way Home” has a mellower, prettier sound, and is a moving and effective song. “If you can take love from sacrifice/And wash away the pain and loneliness/If I could have those last three minutes again.” That is followed by the only cover on Heavens To Betsy, a cool, lively rendition of “Born Under A Bad Sign,” a song I first heard on a Cream cassette I bought when I was a kid. This rendition features some great touches on saxophone, more energetic work on guitar, and also some cool percussion. Heavens To Betsy then concludes with “Preacher’s Daughter,” a fun, fast-paced rock and roll number. This track is a total delight. I love the backing vocals echoing “I saw the light.” This is a playful number, and includes some vocal riffing at the end.

CD Track List
  1. White Lightning
  2. Tornado
  3. Soul Crush
  4. Ecstasy
  5. Forever And A Day
  6. American Steel
  7. Showdown
  8. Leo Stone
  9. Castles In The Air
  10. Long Way Home
  11. Born Under A Bad Sign
  12. Preacher’s Daughter
Heavens To Betsy was released on February 14, 2020 on Ruf Records.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Andy Baker: “North Country Sky” (2020) CD Review

Andy Baker is a singer and songwriter based in Michigan. His new album, North Country Sky, features all original material, covering several styles and moods, and includes some beautiful and effective songs. On this album, in addition to providing the vocals, Andy Baker plays acoustic guitar, octave mandolin, dobro, keys and hand percussion. Joining him on this release are Jeff Moehle on drums and cajon, John Austin on bass, Will Walker on guitar, Drew Howard on pedal steel, and Mike Lynch on accordion and organ, as well as special guest on certain tracks.

This album gets off to an excellent start with “Second Wind.” The opening lines speak strongly to those of us who are of a certain age: “Well, half my beard has turned to grey/Oh, half my years have flown away.” A depressing thought, certainly, but immediately after that, he offers this positive and optimistic outlook: “But I don’t look back on where I’ve been/I’m chasing down my second wind.” And the song sounds strong and bright enough that I believe that it’s possible for all of us. Perhaps it is right around the corner. If we are still above ground, it’s not too late. “I got a bunch of stuff on my bucket list/And an open road that I can’t resist.” Oh yes, that sounds so appealing. This song features mandolin, banjo and accordion, which add to its cheerful and optimistic sound. That’s Mark Schrock on mandolin and Ian Gorman on banjo. At the end of this track, Andy Baker reaches out and addresses us directly: “So when your hair starts turning grey/Well, don’t think your life has flown away/But the best of days come ‘round again/Oh once you catch that second wind.” That’s followed by “Skywriter,” a song told from the perspective of a skywriter. At the beginning of this song, a man runs up to him and asks, “Can you write I’m sorry/So big that she’ll believe/And can you do it all before the six o’clock train leaves?” Yes, it is a love song about a desperate act. And when listening, you can’t help but hope it works. These things can work in songs, in films, in books, when in real life they probably wouldn’t. Is it any wonder that we’re turning to music even more these days? With reality in a horrible downward spiral, no one can blame us for wishing to live within art.

I was feeling down the first time I listened to this album, and “Sixteen” basically wrecked me. This song is about a teenager who is hoping to just make it to her next birthday. “Mom cries about the things that I’ll be missing/Dad cries about the daughter he can’t save/And they tell me when it’s time/Baby, run into the light/Oh, but what if all I want to do is stay?” God, life is so bloody cruel, though that is not the message of this song. There is actually something incredibly positive about this song. “And thank my lucky stars/That I have come so far/Celebrate the gift of another day.” Something all of us could stand to keep in mind, eh? “Next Right Thing” has a strong country sound. Andy Baker is able to create such vivid characters in his songs, this song being just one good example. “I Know” is a beautiful song about dealing with past mistakes and current troubles. “And you said, baby if you can’t let them go/The weight of this regret will crush your soul.”  The response, “I know, I know, I know, I know, I know,” has a different delivery, a lighter sound, which is interesting. At one point he sings, “I know I’ve got a lot of work to do.” Indeed, most of us do. These days it’s hard to keep from letting anger overtake us. Again, there is the sense here that it can be done, that we can work through our troubles and improve our outlook, improve ourselves. And I certainly appreciate that.

“Tsunami” is a song about death and grief. “I did not tell you that I loved you/I did not kiss your lips goodbye/I thought that you’d be home for dinner/You weren’t supposed to leave this life.”  The song suddenly builds in power as the person lashes out, singing, “Last night I ran headlong into the ocean/And begged that cold dark water, please just swallow me.” It is a forceful and moving moment, one of many on this excellent album. “Tsunami” is followed by “Crossroads,” which has a brighter sound. “Now here I stand, staring at a crossroads/Wondering what my next step’s going to be.” Are there portents? Are there signs? Can we be guided? He isn’t certain, saying “The only thing I know for sure is I won’t be coming back.” Then in “Running After You” he sings “And we are, just laughing in this moment/And that’s why I keep running after you.” Yes, it’s a love song, and one that is so sweet, so true. It ends with the lines, “If you go first, I’ll hold onto this memory/Of you standing there, laughing like you do/Waiting at the end of this long dirt road/For me to come running after you/For me to come running after you.” How can anyone remain unaffected by such moving lyrics?

Andy Baker then delivers a more rocking, and less serious number, “Fixer Upper Blues.” This one features some good work by Peter “Madcat” Ruth on harmonica, plus some nice work by Mike Lynch on organ. That’s followed by “Fall To Pieces,” a beautiful song, its first verse taking place after the end of a relationship. “Held it in for the lawyers, held it in for the kids/Held it in so that bastard would never get to see the damage that he did/But now this house is dark and empty/And this old couch won’t tell a soul/So you should fall to pieces/Go on and fall apart.” He tells us, “it’s good to let it go.” Don’t you sometimes just want to fall apart? In the second verse, there is bad news from the doctors. Is it a different character with different troubles? Hell, I hope so. If it’s the same person, that is just too much, too much for one person to handle. This song is like a comforting hand on our shoulder, something we could all use. Mia Rose provides some nice backing vocals.  “Fall To Pieces” is followed by “Love & Gravity,” a sweet song. Check out these lyrics: “A trace of what we used to be/But that’s the deal with time and space/The key is laughter and a little grace/For though our bodies turn to dust/What can’t be lost in each of us/Is love and gravity.” The album concludes with its title track, “North Country Sky.” This one too deals with death, and again in a positive way, in lines like “But when I have come to the end of my days, lay me down in the new fallen snow/Of the north country sky.” Is this album preparing us for the end? It feels that way at times, doesn’t it? And in doing so, it is helping us, perhaps, live a little better.

CD Track List
  1. Second Wind
  2. Skywriter
  3. Sixteen
  4. Next Right Thing
  5. I Know
  6. Tsunami
  7. Crossroads
  8. Running After You
  9. Fixer Upper Blues
  10. Fall To Pieces
  11. Love & Gravity
  12. North Country Sky
North Country Sky was released on June 10, 2020.