Sunday, May 31, 2020

Steven Keene: “Save Yourself” (2020) Single Review

We are in trouble. It is obvious no matter which direction we look. Things are bad out there, and they are getting worse. The country took a dreadfully wrong step in 2016, and for some reason decides each morning since then to compound the error with more and more missteps and mistakes. Who is out there who can alter this reality, who can change the course? And will others listen to those people anyway? For it seems everyone has personal troubles which may selfishly outweigh their larger societal concerns. So where do we start? And who has it together enough to lead the way? Singer and songwriter Steven Keene seems to address all of this in his new single, “Save Yourself” (perhaps the full title being “Before You Save The World Save Yourself”). The CD cover includes a humorous message printed on it: “Warning: The viewpoints expressed in this song are not necessarily those of the artist.” 

This single, by the way, follows It Is What It Is, which was released in January of this year and features some excellent original material. This new song features the same musicians backing him – Matt O’Ree on guitar, Arne Wendt on keys, Joseph Chiarolanza on bass, Rick Scannella on drums, and Layonne Holmes on backing vocals. The song itself is a mix of rock and blues elements, and features some good work particularly by Arne Wendt on keys. Politics certainly play a part in this song, and Steven makes reference to another Republican who held the office in the lines “There’s a thousand points of light tonight/But nothing can be seen.” I also find myself thinking about the title track to his last release, “It Is What It Is,” in which Steven seems to be reminding us that we can’t change everything, and not to dwell on the things that have hurt us. In that song, he sings “Let go what causes pain/Find peace with this/It is what it is.” However, in the new single the lyrics are delivered with some attitude, and he tells us “There’s far too little peace/And far too much green.” My favorite lines are “You live hand to mouth/You got no pot to piss in/You’re living hand to mouth/You’ve got no pot to piss in/You got your megaphone out/But no one will listen.”

CD Track List
  1. Save Yourself
Save Yourself was released on May 15, 2020.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Teddy Thompson: “Heartbreaker Please” (2020) CD Review

The first time I heard Teddy Thompson was in the documentary Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, in which he performs an excellent rendition of “Tonight Will Be Fine.” His performance is one of that film’s highlights, and it is what got me interested in him. At that point, he’d already released his first two solo albums. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that his parents are Richard and Linda Thompson. Music is part of that family’s DNA. Teddy Thompson’s new album, Heartbreaker Please, features all original material, with a certain theme running through these tracks. Joining him on this album are Zach Jones on drums and percussion, Jeff Hill on bass, Al Street on electric guitar, and Eric Finland on piano and keyboards, along with some special guests on various tracks.

The album opens with “Why Wait,” a delicious pop tune that is immediately catchy, with that steady beat and the nice touches on horns. Alec Spiegelman and Cole Kamen provide the work on horns. As cheerful as the song’s sound is, the lyrics are about the end of a relationship, with the first line being “Here’s the thing, you don’t love me anymore” and him soon asking “Why wait for you to break my heart?” Then toward the end he offers us these lines: “There is love in this world to find/And there is love you must leave behind.” If you are suffering some personal heartbreak, this honest song might be the very thing to raise your spirits, with its groove and the way it lets you know that you are not alone. That’s followed by “At A Light,” which has something of a late 1950s or early 1960s vibe, which is just delightful. As with the first track, this one has strong opening lines: “One day soon when you’re all alone at a light/You’re gonna miss me.” Don’t we all want to believe that someone who hurt us is going to, at some point, miss us and maybe feel regret? This song, like the first track, mentions heartbreak, a developing theme of the album more than hinted at by the album’s title. Right as the song is fading out, it directly references an early 1960s song that might have crossed your mind while listening, The Crystals’ “And Then He Kissed Me.”

Richard Thompson joins Teddy on electric guitar on “Heartbreaker Please,” the album’s title track, one that has a bit more of a country vibe. “Will you come back/Heartbreaker please/Will you come back/With all my dreams.” Those lines describe a yearning that most of us have experienced at one time or another. Sure, the “Hitch me to your star” line might come across as a bit cheesy, but it fits with that vulnerable state one is in at these moments. That’s followed by “Brand New,” which begins with a slow, steady beat. This one is about leaving someone, which is difficult, even when one has a new car to take him away. “I’ve got a brand new girl/She is my world these days.” Those last two words reveal a lot, don’t they? I also really like these lines: “And she tells the truth/So I do that too.” This is one of the album’s strongest tracks, featuring a passionate and honest vocal performance.

“What Now” has something of 1970s feel and, as is the case with every song on this album, includes some really good lyrics. “See the world is a cold place/Don’t mess with what you can’t replace/And it only matters now if you’re with me.” This track also features a nice lead on keys. The first line of “No Idea,” “I got no idea what I’m doing,” jumped out at me. Oh yes, I am certainly in touch with that thought. Aren’t most of us? I mean, really, I think no one has any clue what the hell is going on, and we are all just stumbling around, trying to not get too hurt. I also really like the lines, “I’m a metaphor that’s reaching/But can’t extend to this loss.” And I love that work on guitar. This is my favorite track. Ethan Eubanks plays drums on this one, and Erik Deutsch is on keys. Then “Record Player” has a fun vibe right from the start. This is one I bet a lot of people can relate to, as we all make our way through the world hearing a lot of crappy music. It drives me nuts, particularly as there is so much great music out there. I’ve said it often, but the volume at which someone’s music is played seems directly proportional to how shitty the music is. Rarely do you hear a car go by with a great song blaring. Mostly it is complete rubbish, and the dude driving is so proud of his atrocious taste. “Where are the songs that I love/Where is the music that I care for/Is it only in my head/Or on my record player.” Nicki Richards and Leslie Mendelson provide backing vocals on this track.

“Take Me Away” is another of the disc’s highlights. How can you not love that rhythm established at the beginning? And this track has what is probably the best vocal performance of the album. “Love take me away/Love take me away/Far away from here/Into the new.” Plus, this track features a wonderful string arrangement by Chris Carmichael. Mauro Refosco is on percussion. That’s followed by “It’s Not Easy,” which has a cheerful sound. I love the work on horns by Alec Spiegelman and Cole Kamen. The album then concludes with “Move At Speed,” a song with a strange beauty and power. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “Leave the pieces on the floor/You will never have control/Only leaves you wanting more.” Ethan Eubanks is on drums, and Erik Deutsch is on keys.

CD Track List
  1. Why Wait
  2. At A Light
  3. Heartbreaker Please
  4. Brand New
  5. What Now
  6. No Idea
  7. Record Player
  8. Take Me Away
  9. It’s Not Easy
  10. Move At Speed
Heartbreaker Please was released today, May 29, 2020, on Thirty Tigers.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Pharis And Jason Romero: “Bet On Love” (2020) CD Review

Pharis and Jason Romero are a husband and wife team based in British Columbia in a place called Horsefly (I had never heard of it, but it looks beautiful). The duo’s 2018 release, Sweet Old Religion, won several awards, including a Juno Award for Traditional Roots Record (their second Juno Award). Now they’ve followed that up with their fifth release, Bet On Love, an excellent album of original material that has a beautifully familiar vibe and features some wonderful vocal work. On this release, the two are joined by Patrick Metzger on bass, and John Reischman on mandolin.

The album opens with “Hometown Blues,” a tune that has a sweet, comforting vibe, even before Pharis’ vocals come in. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “Mama says you go to school and read about a bigger world/How can I believe that it’s all there if I don’t go/How can I believe the world is full of lonely flowers/With these hometown blues.” This track features some nice work on banjo and mandolin, those two instruments sounding so good together. That’s followed by “New Day,” an absolutely gorgeous and moving song, the vocals having a beautiful and friendly and timeless quality, vocals that feel like that they could carry us home, wherever that might be. “When I come to the end of my valley/Reach my final home/I hope you have been with me/And held my hand all along.” This feels like a song that should have been in my life all along. It is not only my personal favorite track on this album, but one of the best songs I’ve heard so far this year. I could listen to this song all day, it is so beautiful and hopeful.

Jason then takes lead vocal duties on “Roll On My Friend,” his voice conveying a sort of wisdom that comes through experience, and so we trust him, and find comfort in his delivery. Check out these lines: “The gambler does wonder how long he will wait/For the perfect set of shapes and colours in his hand.” I’ve never heard that thought expressed quite that way before, and it is perfect. These guys can certainly write strong and meaningful lyrics. “Right In The Garden” has a gentle vibe, a relaxing feel, with Pharis back on lead vocals, delivering one of the album’s best vocal performances. “And we told each other this was all we need/In the wonderland.” Here they make the normal seem magical, and that takes a certain talent. Don’t we all wish we could do that, to acknowledge the magic in our lives, to live within it, perhaps making our lives seem more special than we previously thought?

“Bet On Love,” the album’s title track, has its own sort of somber beauty, and contains a nod to “If I Had A Hammer (The Hammer Song)” in its opening stanza, with Pharis singing “This hammer is mighty heavy/This hammer is mighty old/Rings in the morning, rings in silence.” There is a touching intimacy in this song, particularly in Pharis’ vocal delivery. “I give a little love to my, love to myself.” Her vocals soon rise to great heights, taking us along for the glorious ride. That’s followed by “New Caledonia,” an instrumental track composed by Jason Romero, featuring guitar and banjo. By the way, this couple’s other job is building banjos, and the banjo used on this track was homemade. If you’re curious, their business is called J. Romero Banjo, and is in Horsefly, British Columbia. In “We All Fall,” Pharis sings “Troubles come and they may go/Waiting for someone to carry me home.” Ah, but we are relying on these musicians to do that for us. “I know I’m not alone,” she sings, and that line has power. It is delivered with strength, but perhaps received with even more.

“Old Chatelaine” has a sweet vibe and features some beautiful harmonies. “I was a sailor on a ship so fine/The captain said this would all be mine/I cast my net in one true throw/Pull my bounty from the depths below.” Then “A Bit Old School” comes on with an energy, having something of a delightfully raw sound, like a live performance. This song also includes some nice harmonies. That is followed by “Kind Girl,” a song with a classic folk vibe, a song that you can learn and sing along to. This one features some good work on guitar. “I say the time is now.” It ends with an interesting section on banjo. The album then concludes with a rather serious-sounding and beautiful song, “World Stops Turning,” with Jason on lead vocals. Check out these lines: “The world stops turning each day around dark/The time when I feel my heaviest heart/Faces and names don’t matter anymore/The world stops turning when you walk out the door.”

CD Track List
  1. Hometown Blues
  2. New Day
  3. Roll On My Friend
  4. Right In The Garden
  5. Bet On Love
  6. New Caledonia
  7. We All Fall
  8. Old Chatelaine
  9. A Bit Old School
  10. Kind Girl
  11. World Stops Turning
Bet On Love was released on May 15, 2020 on Lula Records.

Doc Watson And Gaither Carlton: “Doc Watson And Gaither Carlton” (2020) CD Review

It seems that more and more these days we are looking for some escape – to another place, to another time, to… well, just Somewhere Else. You know? And on this live album, Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton offer some great old-time music to take us away from our current troubles, from a world turned ugly with stupidity to a place where there might still be troubles, sure, but where people are working together to overcome them. Or, at least, where we get the sense that that is the case. So join Doc and Gaither at a small folk club called Blind Lemon’s, and enjoy some good music. Doc Watson plays guitar, banjo and autoharp, and sings. Gaither Carlton plays fiddle and banjo. This release includes a lot of photos in the liner notes, along with pieces written by Mary Katherine Aldin, Stephanie Coleman and Peter K. Siegel. Siegel is responsible for this album, having recorded the performances with his tape machine. Most of the tracks were recorded at Blind Lemon’s on October 18, 1962. Four tracks were recorded on October 12, 1962 at the auditorium of NYU’s School of Education.

The album opens with a song from the October 12th performance, a good instrumental tune titled “Double File,” composed by Gaither Carlton. The disc then moves to the October 18th show, with “Handsome Molly,” a song that Doc and Gaither would later play at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. “She goes to church on Sunday/She passes me on by/I can tell her mind is changing/By the roving of her eye.” And I love the comments Doc shouts out from time to time, such as “Handsome Molly, prettiest woman in the world.” That’s followed by “He’s Coming To Us Dead,” a song about a father waiting for the body of his son to be shipped home. “He's coming home to mother/The old man gently said/He's coming home in a casket, sir/He's coming to us dead.” They then offer a good rendition of “Corrine, Corrina,” here titled simply “Corrina.” This is a song that has been recorded by a lot of artists over the years, starting in 1928 with a recording by Bo Carter. Doc Watson would later include a version of this song on Then And Now, an album he recorded with Merle Watson. “Brown’s Dream” is an instrumental featuring some excellent work on fiddle. Well, it is sort of an instrumental; it’s an instrumental tune, but with some vocal encouragement.

The album features two versions of “Groundhog,” one recorded at each venue. This first one is from the show at Blind Lemon’s, and features Gaither on banjo. There is some humor to the introduction and to the delivery, and it’s a fun track. And is that a phone ringing we hear at one point? Yes, indeed, it is. That first version of “Groundhog” is followed by the first of two songs on this release to mention the Blue Ridge Mountains in its title, “My Home’s Across The Blue Ridge Mountains.” This one has more of an air of melancholy, with him not expecting to see his darling again. “How can I keep from crying/When I never expect to see you anymore.” “Bonaparte’s Retreat” is an interesting instrumental, and one of my personal favorites. That’s followed by “Willie Moore,” a somewhat somber-sounding tune telling the tale of a couple that are kept apart by the girl’s parents, and the girl’s subsequent death (possibly sharing the same fate as Ophelia). “Willie Moore” is one of the four tracks to come from the October 12th show. It is followed by the second of two songs on this release to mention the Blue Ridge Mountains in its title, “The Blue Ridge Mountain Blues.” There is something about those mountains that makes them perfect for the subject of songs. Once when I was camping in those mountains, there was an insane storm, which kept causing our tent to collapse. It was a miserable night, but in the morning, the air was clear and the view was gorgeous. A cop came by to tell us we were camping illegally, and I was sick for a week afterward, but I still look back at that place fondly.

“Goin’ Back To Jericho” is fast-paced and totally enjoyable song driven by the banjo. That’s followed by “Billy In The Low Ground,” an instrumental tune featuring the fiddle. It is also one of the four tracks from the NYU School Of Education show. Then we get another lively number, “Reuben’s Train,” a banjo song that uses the line “I’m going where these chilly winds don’t blow,” a line that also shows up in “Cold Rain And Snow” and of course in “Chilly Winds” and “Chilly Winds Don’t Blow.”  “The Dream Of The Miner’s Child” is a moving song about a child having a premonition about her father’s death, begging him not to go down into the mine that day. “She gave him a kiss, and then cried/Oh Daddy, don’t go to the mines today.” The album concludes with the second rendition of “Groundhog,” this one from the October 12th show. On this version, Gaither is on fiddle and Doc is on autoharp, and they are joined by Arnold Watson on banjo.

CD Track List
  1. Double File
  2. Handsome Molly
  3. He’s Coming To Us Dead
  4. Corrina
  5. Brown’s Dream
  6. Groundhog
  7. My Home’s Across The Blue Ridge Mountains
  8. Bonaparte’s Retreat
  9. Willie Moore
  10. The Blue Ridge Mountain Blues
  11. Goin’ Back To Jericho
  12. Billy In The Low Ground
  13. Reuben’s Train
  14. The Dream Of The Miner’s Child
  15. Groundhog
Doc Watson And Gaither Carlton is scheduled to be released on May 29, 2020 on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, and will be available on both CD and vinyl.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Staples: “Unlock Your Mind” (1978/2020) CD Review

The Staple Singers had changed their name to The Staples for the group’s 1976 LP, Pass It On, and continued to use that name through their 1978 release, Unlock Your Mind, which is now being re-issued along with three other albums from the 1970s. For this one, the group returned to Muscle Shoals, hoping to recapture some of the magic of their early 1970s Stax releases. The album was produced by Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett, and features some good and interesting choices of material. This re-issue includes one bonus track and new liner notes by Rob Bowman.

The album opens with “Chica Boom,” which was also chosen as the second single to be released from the album. It is a funky little gem featuring a taste of the social messages the group had been known for, in lines like “You bring the justice, and I’ll bring the freedom.” And the energy is certainly there, particularly in the lead vocal performance. Plus, the horn section offers some wonderful stuff. This song was written and originally recorded by Jimmie Cameron and Vella Cameron. “I’ll take the high road, and you take the low road,” Mavis Staples sings. Ah, these days I think the low road is much too crowded. That’s followed by “Don’t Burn Me,” a song written by the American funk and soul singer Paul Kelly (not to be confused with the Australian singer and songwriter Paul Kelly), and released as a single in 1972 and also used as the title track to his 1973 LP. The Staples deliver an excellent rendition. The song’s opening lines are “Here is my heart/Take it apart,” followed by a passionate plea to not be burned. Yeah, it is certainly a song that everyone has been able to relate to at one point or another in his or her life.  I’ve been ripped off before/I can’t take it no more.” It seems that the entire country could be shouting out those lines at this point.

A delicious, classic groove is established at the beginning of “(Shu-Doo-Pa-Poo-Poop) Love Being Your Fool,” and it seems things are now really getting going. This song was written by Jerry Williams and Charlie Whitehead, and recorded by Charlie Whitehead. It was also a hit for Travis Wammack. I think this version by The Staples is even better. It is a fun and light number featuring a delicious little lead on saxophone, followed by one of those enjoyable sections of vocals and percussion. This is where that Muscle Shoals magic shines. That’s followed by a cover of Electric Light Orchestra’s “Showdown,” which features another strong groove. I am seriously digging that bass. This is an interesting choice, and I like how they handle it. There is something kind of sexy about it, and it develops into a cool jam. We then get the album’s title track, which was also the song chosen to be the first single released from it. This one has a lighter, cheerful groove, and seems to offer a friendly hand and some advice. “You can’t look back/You gotta look ahead instead/So many good things are passing you by/Because all you do now is sit around and moan and cry.” It is a get-up-and-dust-yourself-off kind of message that can all use now and again.

The group then goes more into gospel with a wonderful rendition of “Handwriting On The Wall,” featuring some exciting, uplifting vocal work. This is a song to make you smile and get you on your feet. These guys are masters at this kind of material, and this track is a highlight of the album. It is followed by “Mystery Train,” a song I’ve loved since I first heard it in my early teens. The Staples deliver a good rendition, with Pops taking lead vocals duty. This track also features some good work by John Noski on harmonica. It was paired with “Unlock Your Mind” on the single. Then “Leave It All Up To Love” has an easygoing vibe and a simple, but positive message. Will love be enough to see us through? I hope so. “Ain’t it kind of strange how everyone’s complaining about being all alone by yourself” is a line that has a bit of a different meaning during the pandemic, eh? That’s followed by “I Want You To Dance,” an enjoyable track. There isn’t a whole lot happening with this one, but it has a sweet vibe. The original album concludes with “God Can,” another song written by Paul Kelly, this one from his 1977 LP Stand On The Positive Side. Here The Staples deliver a beautiful rendition featuring some gorgeous vocals. It feels like a song that could unite us all. “But though man can do a lot of things/Man, he’s limited/Can you catch the wind/Can you make the world spin/Can you pull the sun down/Can you make man from the ground/Oh no, but I know who can.” Partway through, Pops delivered some of the lyrics almost like spoken word. It’s a strong ending to the original album.

Bonus Track

This disc contains just one bonus track, the single version of “Chica Boom,” which is only eighteen seconds shorter than the album version.

CD Track List
  1. Chica Boom
  2. Don’t Burn Me
  3. (Shu-Doo-Pa-Poo-Poop) Love Being Your Food
  4. Showdown
  5. Unlock Your Mind
  6. Handwriting On The Wall
  7. Mystery Train
  8. Leave It All Up To Love
  9. I Want You To Dance
  10. God Can
  11. Chica Boom (Single Edit)
This re-issue of Unlock Your Mind is scheduled to be released on June 26, 2020 through Omnivore Recordings. Also scheduled to be released that day is the re-issue of Family Tree.