Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Willie Nile: “The Day The Earth Stood Still” (2021) CD Review


Now that the vaccine is available to everyone, most of us are eager to emerge from the shadows and get back to those things that we missed for more than a year – concerts, theatre, family gatherings, sporting events. Willie Nile, for one, is clearly ready to burst out of isolation and rock the world with his new album, The Day The Earth Stood Still. Inspired by the state of the world, and more specifically, the state of New York City, during the pandemic, this new album features all original material, and includes enough energy to power every concert hall and club across the country. So let’s get them re-opened, gather some vaccinated friends together and head out on the town. And if you’re not quite ready for that, just turn up your stereo, and enjoy some excellent new music in the comfort of your home. Willie Nile plays electric guitar, acoustic guitar and piano on this album. Joining him are Jimi K. Bones on guitar and percussion, Johnny Pisano on bass and backing vocals, Jon Weber on drums and percussion, Andy Burton on keys and glockenspiel, and Marc Jonson on keys and glockenspiel. James Maddock, Joe Crowley and Frankie Lee provide backing vocals.

The Day The Earth Stood Still opens with its title track, a song about the lockdown, when the streets were empty, which was an eerie sight in a big city, an odd thing to experience. And even those who don’t live in a city still witnessed this strange phenomenon via computer screens. Willie Nile uses the title of the well-known science fiction film as a description for this time, and even includes the famous phrase from that film, “Klaatu barada nikto,” in the song. In the movie, that phrase is used to keep the robot from destroying the planet. (By the way, those words were also used as names for aliens in Return Of The Jedi.) Anyway, this is Willie Nile at his best, full of passion and attitude. “The day the Earth stood still, the day the Earth stood still/I saw grown men cry, making out their will the day the Earth stood still.” I remember my first day back at work after many months of unemployment. I left at what would normally have been rush hour, which in Los Angeles means crawling and swearing the whole way there, but there was no traffic whatsoever. It was seriously strange, and this song recalls that experience for me. “The Day The Earth Stood Still” is followed by “Sanctuary,” which was co-written by Marc Jonson. During these crazy times, many people, in one sense or another, are seeking refuge, a place of protection and safety.  In this song, Willie Nile sings about a woman who gives him sanctuary. This track also has a lot of energy, and I especially dig that work on keys.

From its playful title, you can expect “Where There’s A Willie There’s A Way” to be a totally enjoyable number, and that’s exactly what you get here. It’s a song that shows his sense of humor, but also shows his heart. Check out these lines: “You may be up, you may be down, you may be a circus clown/You can climb down from your tree, grab a phone and dial me/Where there’s a Willie, there’s a way.” This one was co-written by Michael Des Barres. As a side note, a few years ago, the southern California theatre company Shakespeare By The Sea put out T-shirts that say, “Where There’s A Will, There’s A Play.” So there. Then “Blood On Your Hands” has a meaner sound, with a bit of blues, a bit of anger, with Willie singing “There’s bodies piling up down on Good Luck Street.” Here he is joined by Steve Earle on vocals, and together they sing about having to face the consequence of one’s actions, one’s greed. In these twisted times, when it seems that certain politicians have gotten away with multiple crimes, it is a welcome message. When we hear the line “But hell will remember all the times you’ve lied and lied and lied and lied,” it is difficult to keep from thinking of the previous administration and the man who cannot stop lying even now. The line “When the pauper is king and the king becomes a clown” also makes me think of King Lear. But this song isn’t just about so-called leaders, its theme working on a personal level as well as on that larger stage.

Willie Nile then changes gears with the mellower and thoughtful “The Justice Bell,” a song inspired by John Lewis. “O the Justice Bell is on the way, hear it ring/For all those lost and cast away, hear it ring/Hear it in the alleyways beneath the angel’s wing/The Justice Bell will not be stilled, hear it ring.” This becomes a beautiful and uplifting number, one you might be singing along with before too long, even before Willie Nile calls out “Everybody!” It was co-written by Frankie Lee. That’s followed by “Expect Change,” which has a delicious groove and features another positive message, “Expect change ‘cause it’s coming.” Amen to that. It can’t come quickly enough, but with Willie Nile singing, I have no doubt that it will get here. Willie Nile’s is a voice that I trust, a voice that won’t steer us wrong. This song is hopeful and optimistic. Then “I Don’t Remember You” is surprisingly pretty, though still with a sense of humor. “Your long brown hair does a bob and weave/You wear your heart on your left sleeve/You could not stay but you would not leave/And you’ve got a smile like New Year’s Eve/But I don’t remember you.” And I love these lines: “The liquor flowed like a battle cry/But when you left I was bone dry.”

“Off My Medication” comes on strong with a great rock sound, and a certain punk element, and I love it immediately, even before those surprising opening lines: “I put my fingers in the toaster, stuck my Granny in the grave/Put peanut butter on my cat and in the microwave.” Crazy, but free, right? There is something appealing about it, about just saying fuck it and running off the rails. We all need a small vacation, eh? The line about needing to use the can makes me laugh aloud. Then toward the end, the song changes slightly, with something else to say: “Somehow in this world there’s got to be a better way/For us to make peace and love the order of the day/Put all the politicians on a ship and out to sea/Baby, that’s what I would do if it was up to me.” Well, all right! Sometimes the thing we need most from music (or from novels, poetry, films, and so on) is just to hear we’re not alone, and some of the best songs say exactly that. Such is the case with “I Will Stand,” a song we can lean on, even though it might be a personal declaration of love. “I will stand with you in the darkness/I will stand with you in the light/Take my hand, we’ll climb on the mountain.”

I was ready for the message of “Time To Be Great,” but still surprised by its opening line, which made me laugh the first time I heard it. That line is “Time to be great, it’s quarter to eight.” I wasn’t expecting such a precise time. I love how Willie Nile does such things, crafting songs that can surprise and delight. He is one hell of an excellent songwriter, knowing when a simple line is the most effective. “Don’t be a dope, you gotta have hope,” he sings here. The album then concludes with “Way Of The Heart,” which was co-written by Frankie Lee and features Lee on drums, tambourine and backing vocals. Stewart Smith is on electric guitar, and Stewart Lerman plays bass on this one. This song also reaches out to us, making us know we are not alone in our fears or despair. “And remember when you’re all alone/You’re not the only one.” This uplifting song is a perfect ending to one of my favorite albums of the year.

CD Track List

  1. The Day The Earth Stood Still
  2. Sanctuary
  3. Where There’s A Willie There’s A Way
  4. Blood On Your Hands
  5. The Justice Bell
  6. Expect Change
  7. I Don’t Remember You
  8. Off My Medication
  9. I Will Stand
  10. Time To Be Great
  11. Way Of The Heart

The Day The Earth Stood Still is scheduled to be released on August 13, 2021 on River House Records.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Kool & The Gang: “Perfect Union” (2021) CD Review


When I was growing up, Kool & The Gang were on the radio quite a bit. Hits like “Ladies’ Night,” “Get Down On It” and of course “Celebration” got us through some strange periods, both back then and many times since then. Well, have there been times stranger than the ones we are currently experiencing? It has been nearly a decade since the last Kool & The Gang album, but, perhaps sensing that world could use a fresh dose of their joyful music, the group is now releasing Perfect Union, featuring all original material. The album’s title of course calls to mind the U.S. Constitution, and the way we are still today trying to fulfill that promise of a more perfect union, which seems more and more difficult. The album was produced by Kool & The Gang founding member, saxophonist Ronald Bell, who wrote a lot of the band’s popular songs and co-wrote all of this album’s material. Sadly, he died before getting to see the album completed. The album’s title, in addition to referring to the country and Constitution, refers to the two brothers, Kool and Ronald, and the combination of their talents in this band. The band, as you are probably already aware, has gone through a lot of changes over the years, and for this album original members Robert “Kool” Bell, Ronald Bell, George Brown and Dennis Thomas are joined by Walt Anderson on vocals, Michael Ray on trumpet, Ravi Best on trumpet, Eddie Allen on trumpet, Jermaine Bryson on trombone, Royal Bayyan on electric guitar, Amir Bayyan on electric guitar, Mark Bowers on electric guitar, Diego Leanza on bass and electric guitar, Alessandro Calemme on keys and electric guitar, Mark Smith on keys and electric guitar, Shaun Bass on bass, and Akene Dunkley on keys. Shawn McQuiller, Lavell Evans, Steve Lavell, and Jacqueline Reilly provide backing vocals.

Following the theme established by the album’s title, the album opens with a song titled “Pursuit Of Happiness,” the phrase of course coming from the Declaration of Independence. The lyrics address the dream of this country, calling for things to be as good as they could be. The opening lines are: “I want to live in a world full of peace/The color of skin, it just don’t matter/Let’s get along, and let’s get better.” Many other lines stand out, such as “Let’s uphold the Constitution” and “Lord, could you send somebody to help us/Someone to help us with the dream?” Though also mentioning several of the current and ongoing problems, this is a positive and optimistic song, just what we need now. Yes, it is a song with a message, but it is also a song you can dance to. At the end, there is a rap section by Keith Murray. Then “The Weekend” is pure fun, a song about celebrating, about enjoying ourselves. It has a funky rhythm, and some wonderful touches on horns. Most of us can relate to looking forward to the weekend, though the line “We ain’t gonna be doing much sleeping” might not apply to those of us who don’t get much sleep during the week. This song is totally enjoyable.

“Leave It On The Dance Floor” is another fun number that encourages dancing, taking us back to the disco era. I know a lot of us are looking forward to the moment when we can safely return to the dance floor and cut loose. So come on, folks, get vaccinated, so we can enjoy songs like this one out on the floor as intended. “And if you come dance with me/I could change your life/‘Cause I’m living good/Like I should/Let me tell you what it’s like.” That’s followed by “High,” a sweeter number. It’s a love song, but of course still has a beat you can move to. Things then get very cool with “Sexy (Where’d You Get Yours),” a song that Kool & The Gang released as a single back in 2016. A strong beat, an excellent vocal performance, and a delicious energy make this an undeniable highlight of the album. That’s followed by “All To Myself,” another love song. “How could, how could anyone ignore you/I would, I would do anything for you/I know, I know your heart has been broken/It’s okay, okay, ‘cause I need it to be open.” Then “R.O.Y.A.L.T.Y. (Kool & The Gang Mix)” delivers more delicious funky vibes. I’m not sure why the song’s title is written that way, for those letters don’t stand for anything, but no matter. This track has such a great bass line. “She said, I’m royalty, so give me anything I want, baby.”

We can all use words of encouragement these days, right? Well, Kool & The Gang offer some in “Hold On”: “Don’t you give up now/This is your song/Hold on/The sun’s not gone/Hold on/It won’t be long/Hold on/Just stay strong/Hold on.” And again, though there is a good message, there is also a good beat. That’s followed by “Good Time,” another song urging us to celebrate, to set aside our troubles, at least for the night. “So if you’re feeling bad today/Why not go and celebrate/So grab a glass and make a toast/To happiness, let’s make the most.” This track features a wonderful and prominent bass line, and that funky bass line is really at the heart of this tune. The album then ends as it began, with another version of “Pursuit Of Happiness.” This is a shorter version that seems to focus on the rap section by getting to it more quickly. This song urges us to take care of one another, as well as the planet. “I want to live in a world that’s full of hope and change/There’s a brighter day/And I want to go to a place called We The People/Where everyone’s treated equal.”

CD Track List

  1. Pursuit Of Happiness
  2. The Weekend
  3. Leave It On The Dance Floor
  4. High
  5. Sexy (Where’d You Get Yours)
  6. All To Myself
  7. R.O.Y.A.L.T.Y. (Kool & The Gang Mix)
  8. Hold On
  9. Good Time
  10. Pursuit Of Happiness (Rap Version)

Perfect Union is scheduled to be released on August 21, 2021 through Omnivore Recordings.

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Gabriella Simpkins Is First Recipient Of New Songwriter Grant


Gabriella Simpkins is a singer and songwriter based in Massachusetts, and she is the first recipient of the Eastern Front Songwriter Grant, named for the music label that introduced many important Boston area singer/songwriters to larger audiences (including artists like Martin Sexton, Grey Greenway, Peter Mulvey, Jim’s Big Ego, Courage Brothers, Barbara Kessler, and Kevin Connolly). The label was founded by Jerry Potts, who also served as chair of Passim Board of Directors from 2008 to 2020, and the new award honors the work he did and his legacy. The grant, which was established by Club Passim, is designed to help new artists finance professional recording projects, and will be given annually. By the way, Gabriella Simpkins will be performing at Club Passim on August 9th, along with Talia Rubenstein, as part of the venue’s Discovery Series.

Friday, July 30, 2021

Brief Notes On New Jazz Releases

Music helps us get through tough times. No question about it. And though we thought with the availability of the vaccine that we were well on the way out of this mess, those who refuse to get the vaccination are ensuring that the troubles continue for a while. Fortunately, there is more great music to help ease our tensions and keep us from tearing the heads off those imbeciles who aren’t yet vaccinated. Here are some notes on a few new jazz releases you might want to check out.


Dr. Mike Bogle: “Let There Be Light”
– Ah yes, after the darkness of the last administration and the pandemic, we are ready for some light, and Dr. Mike Bogle provides it on this new album. He plays both keyboards and trombone on this release, and also provides vocals on the title track and “Eat Your Vitamins.” Joining him are Dana Sudborough on vibes, Andy Barrus on steel pan and percussion, Buddy Mohmed on bass, and Harrel Bosarge on drums. There are only six tracks, so you know there is a decent amount of jamming, of stretching out. These are mostly original compositions, with only one cover. The album opens with “Voyager’s Dream,” which establishes a good groove, and features not only an exciting lead on piano, but also a really nice lead on vibes and a cool lead on bass. That’s followed by the album’s title track, which features vocal work (though no lyrics), and has an uplifting vibe about it, which of course is fitting for its title. Interestingly, there is a second take of this tune at the end of the album, this version without vocals. “Eat Your Vitamins” has a funky element, particularly in that work on bass, which is wonderful. This one also includes vocal work, this time with lyrics. “Each your vitamins/And take your vegetables.” There is also some excellent work on drums. And partway through this track, we are treated to a strong lead on trombone, helping to make it one of the disc’s highlights. “Positano” has a really pleasant atmosphere, and features some seriously good work on keys, often interacting with the vibes, as well as a wonderfully expressive lead on bass. The album’s only cover is Pee Wee Ellis’ “The Chicken,” and Dr. Mike Bogle delivers an interesting and fun rendition that features some great work on bass. This album was released on July 1, 2021.


Wayne Coniglio & Scott Whitfield: “Faster Friends”
– In 2014, trombone players Wayne Coniglio and Scott Whitfield released an album titled Fast Friends, and now are following that up with Faster Friends. As with the earlier release, this album is designed to celebrate the trombone, and contains a mix of covers and original material. Coniglio and Whitfield also have the same musicians backing them as on the previous release – Ken Kehner on piano, Eric Warren on bass, and Kevin Gianino on drums. There are also special guests on a few tracks. The album opens with a delicious cover of Dexter Gordon’s “Fried Bananas” (Fast Friends contains an original tune titled “Fried Pickles,” so there you go). This track moves at a good clip, with a cheerful energy. That’s followed by an original number composed by pianist Ken Kehner, “Swirling,” which has a more somber vibe and contains a rather pretty lead on piano partway through, and then a cover of “Girl Talk,” which has a wonderfully romantic feel. For the cover of “Mimi,” the group is joined by Jacob Melsha, Debbie Lennon and Elsie Parker on vocals near the end, a nice touch. This disc contains three tracks composed by Wayne Coniglio, the first of which, “Step Checkitude,” has an easygoing groove and features enjoyable leads on both trombone and piano. The second, “The Determinator,” swings and moves, having an undeniable sense of play, and is one of my favorite tracks. It even includes a cool, though short, drum solo. Jacob Melsha joins the group on trombone for this one. The third track written by Wayne Coniglio, “You’re My Dream Come True,” is a sweet and romantic number that makes you want to turn off the lights and cuddle with that special someone. It is another of the disc’s highlights. My other personal favorite is the group’s version of “Free And Easy,” which is a total delight from beginning to end, and ought to shake the worst of moods from the most stubborn of souls. This is a lot of fun. The album concludes with a lively rendition of Joe Henderson’s “Recordame,” featuring Jacob Melsha on trombone. This album was released on June 11, 2021.


Alex Martin: “Folk Songs, Jazz Journeys”
– On his new album, guitarist Alex Martin pays tribute to the folk traditions that influenced his musical career. The songs he chooses to cover here come from different parts of the world. There are also some original compositions on this album, and together they create a musical journey for the listener to go on. Alex Martin opens with one of the original tunes, “Postal De Bata,” a gentle and loving message to his wife, featuring some wonderful work by Uasuf Gueye on balafon. Tyler Sherman is on bass, and Keith Butler Jr. is on drums. That’s followed by “Wayfaring Stranger,” an American folk song. Maya Rogers provides the vocals, her performance deftly combining jazz and gospel styles. Alex Martin delivers some excellent work on guitar, and this track also features a really good lead on bass by Tyler Sherman. Maya Rogers also sings on “Viceversa,” Mario Benedetti’s poem set to music. Alex Martin then turns to a Brazilian song with “Asa Branca,” this one featuring Elin Melgarejo on vocals. Ethan Foote’s work on bass is excellent, and this track also features some wonderful percussion. Deepak Shenoy is on tabla, and Bruno Lucini is on triangle. They both also play on “Triangulo,” an original song which follows “Asa Branca,” and again features Elin Melgarejo on vocals. There is something cheerful about this track, both in that vocal work and in the song’s groove that is really appealing. Keith Butler Jr. gets a chance to cut loose a bit on drums toward the end. And, as is true of all the tracks, it features some excellent work on guitar. Ethan Foote gets “Rue Des Ursulines” off to a very cool start on bass, and the track never loses that great vibe. Then from France, Alex Martin delivers a nice rendition of “Le Temps Des Cerises,” based on a poem by Jean-Baptiste Clement, and featuring a wonderful vocal performance by Lynn Véronneau. That is followed by “I Once Loved A Lass,” which features some beautiful work by Jodi Beder on cello, an instrument I am always happy to hear. Gaby Kerdoncuff plays trumpet on a lively, exciting version of “Laridé,” and the album concludes with another original number, “Estamos Aquí Para Colaborar.” This album was released on March 22, 2021.


Dave Miller Trio: “The Mask-erade Is Over”
– Pianist Dave Miller celebrates the end of the pandemic (a bit prematurely, as it turns out) with this totally delightful album, kicking it off with a hopping and breezy rendition of “Anthropology” that features some excellent work from all three musicians. Andrew Higgins is on bass, and Bill Belasco is on drums. That’s followed by Irving Berlin’s “Be Careful It’s My Heart.” Yes, most of the tunes chosen for this album are ones most folks will be familiar with, and that seems to be the point, to provide some music we can all enjoy as we try to emerge from this pandemic and eventually leave the masks at home. The album’s title track (sort of), “The Masquerade Is Over,” begins slowly, as you might it expect it to, with some pretty work on piano, but then suddenly picks up the pace and becomes rather cheerful. That’s followed by a bright, swinging rendition of Bill Evans’ “The Opener.” The mood turns more serious with the Dave Miller Trio’s contemplative rendition of “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” And then things immediately begin swinging again with Dave Miller’s rendition of Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite,” which includes a good lead on bass. This disc also contains a nice version of Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way” and a lively rendition of “Hallucinations” that includes a drum solo. There is one original composition on this album, “Dusty,” which according to the liner notes was written in memory of a dog. It eases along at its own pace, in no hurry, but not going slowly either, and will likely bring a smile to your face before the end. It is one of those tunes that feel the way you want life to feel. This album was released on July 16, 2021.


Chris Standring: “Wonderful World”
– Guitarist Chris Standring covers other composers on this album, delivering mostly standards, which is something new for the musician who is known for his own compositions. Most tracks feature a core trio of guitar, bass and drums (though with different musicians on bass and drums for various songs), backed by strings. The orchestra is conducted by Geoff Gascoyne. The album opens with a thoughtful and pretty rendition of Jobim’s “How Insensitive,” followed by a version of Cole Porter’s “Night And Day” that swings gently. His guitar works so well with the strings, and in particular on “Night And Day” with the harp. In the second half of that track, there is a good bass lead by Chuck Berghofer, at first backed by just the others of the trio, and then suddenly involving the strings, a really nice moment. There are also a couple of special guests on this album. For its title track, for example, Kathrin Shorr joins on vocals. That track, one of my personal favorites, actually opens with the orchestra, a beautiful introduction. It’s a great time to revisit this song, for we can use a reminder of all the beauty in the world, and Kathrin Shorr delivers a moving and gentle performance. The other guest is Randy Brecker, who plays flugelhorn on “Sunrise,” the album’s one original track composed by Chris Standring. This is another of the disc’s highlights, creating a wonderful and soothing mood, a track that seems to tell us to relax and not let mundane troubles ruin us. This album also includes a sweet rendition of “Falling In Love With Love,” the strings giving it a magical quality at times. The disc concludes with a beautiful and somewhat contemplative rendition of “My Foolish Heart,” the only track to not include drums. This album is scheduled to be released on September 3, 2021.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Day Of Blues 2021 Features Excellent Lineup


The 18th Annual Blues From The Top “Day Of Blues” festival features a great lineup, including Ruthie Foster, who last year released Live At The Paramount, a live album where she was backed by a full horn section. What sort of band will she have with her for this festival? I guess we’ll have to wait and see. The lineup also includes Sugaray Rayford, whose 2019 release Somebody Save Me also features a horn section, and is an album worth checking out. I haven’t seen him in concert yet, but that release gives me the feeling that he puts on a good, soulful show. Also playing at this festival are Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Eric Gales and A.J. Fullerton. There will be vendors selling food, clothing, jewelry and so on. The festival is scheduled for Saturday, August 14th, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and will be held at Rendezvous Event Center in Winter Park, Colorado. Gates open at 10 a.m. Rules for what items you’re allowed to take into the venue are posted on the festival’s official website.

Explorer Tapes: “Explorer Tapes” (2021) CD Review


I’d love to get a list of all the albums that have been recorded, mixed, and yet, for one reason or another, not released. I bet there are many great gems on that list. Fortunately, some of those albums eventually do get a release. Such is the case with the debut self-titled album from Explorer Tapes, which was recorded in January of 2015 when the band was called The Colors Orchestra, and is now being released by Omnivore Recordings and Warner Records. It features original material, including one song that was – in the meantime – recorded by Keith Urban. The group is led by the duo of Max Townsley on vocals and guitar, and Drew Erickson on vocals and keys, and their vocal work is one of the main draws of this album. The rest of the band is made up of Mike Elizondo on bass, keyboards and percussion; and Aaron Sterling on drums and percussion. There are also some guests on various tracks. This album is being released on both CD and vinyl, and there are two extra tracks on the CD.

The album opens with “All Depends On You,” which begins with a good solid beat, and soon develops into an enjoyable pop song. “Outside I’m learning how to/Fight for the things I believe in now/I’m not afraid of anything, that much I know/I can’t wait to get this show out on the road/Ooh, darling, all my plans are finally coming true.” Those lines stand out in part because of the long wait for this release. I love the optimistic, upbeat feel of this song. It’s a song that reminds us just how good pop music can be. “All the world is waiting for us to explore/All the world is waiting right outside the door.” That’s followed by “Texas Time,” the song that was recorded and released by Keith Urban in 2018 (it was included on his Graffiti U album). It’s pop, with a good deal of country flavor, and a delightful innocence. “And I know a place where the people are real/And they’re taking it easy and making you feel right at home/Yeah, and that’s where I’m going.” There are also some country vibes to “A Good Friend Is Hard To Find,” a song that comes as an apology, and with a hopeful look to the future, to some reconciliation. “I’ve been thinking, drinking, feeling just like dirt/Over all those things I told you that were only meant to hurt/And now I, I know I, I shouldn’t have been so unkind/Because, oh, a good friend is hard to find.”

“Julia” has the feel of an older song, maybe from the late 1970s, early 1980s. I can imagine a group like Air Supply recording it. Yes, I like Air Supply. And yes, the vocal work is that good. “I had this crazy notion/It would all turn out fine/Nothing could come between us/Now she was actually mine/I just wanted/For all of our joys to outweigh the sorrows.” Max Townsley plays electric sitar on this one. That’s followed by “Kids These Days.” I would not want to be a kid these days, what with the constant threat of gun violence and the harsh maze of social media. Still, we all go through some of the same things, even if we’d prefer to forget them. This track features some really nice vocal work, as well as a string section, which adds to the track’s beauty. Ross Gasworth is on cello, Michelle Gasworth is on viola, and Katie Sloan is on violin. “Oh no, you know that it’s not easy.” Then Roger Manning Jr. joins the group on keyboards for “Washed Away,” another track with something of a late 1970s sound.

The vocal line of “Change Looks Good On You” feels somewhere between Paul Simon of the 1970s and Steve Miller of the 1980s. This song is totally enjoyable, part of it being that catchy bass line. Part of it is that the group is joined by Danny T. Levin on trumpet, and David Moyer on tenor saxophone. “I still love you, girl, but that don’t matter/I’m so glad you made it through/Pretty baby, and the change looks on you.” That’s followed by “Radio,” which is about reaching out to someone with a song. “If I could just get on the radio/I could make you see/What you mean to me/And you would hear me everywhere you go.” Then “Everybody’s Crazy” begins in a darker, more somber place. “And I know sometimes it’s hard on you/Just to ask someone for help/And I know it seems impossible to forgive yourself/Or anybody else/But everybody’s crazy, so it’s all right/Everyone has bad dreams in the middle of the night.” How is that for a beautiful piece of truth? This is one of my personal favorite tracks. It is followed by “More Than A Song Can Say,” which also has a rather serious sound. “I know for sure that sleep will never come/Scenes play like a movie in my mind/Mistakes that I made along the line/But you know I’ve loved you, darling, all along the way.” The group returns to a brighter pop sound with “Easy To Love,” which is fun from the moment it starts. “It’s so easy/I guess it’s easy enough/Enough/‘Cause you’re so easy/You’re just so easy to love.” The vinyl edition then concludes with “Wouldn’t Change A Thing,” in which they sing “If I had to do it all again, I would not change a thing.” Now that is a good feeling, isn’t it? And this song conveys that feeling so well. As it carries us along, we might begin to look at our own lives that way, at least for the length of the track. Danny T. Levin and David Moyer return on trumpet and tenor saxophone respectively.

The CD contains two more tracks, the first of which is “Sunset Strip.” Early in the album was a song titled “Texas Time,” Texas being where the duo was from. But it was Los Angeles where this group recorded the album. This is a sweet song about that famous section of L.A., known for rock clubs and a musical history.  The song mentions Jim Morrison and includes a Beach Boys reference. And check out these lines: “A young girl takes a powder like a Catholic receiving the host/Look at all these hookers, none of them are half the looker as you/No one in that scene could ever dream of half the things that you do.” And the line “And start a little riot on the Sunset Strip” of course refers to the curfew riots that took place in 1966, and inspired a film titled Riot On The Sunset Strip, as well as the song “For What It’s Worth.” The CD concludes with “Still Love Lindsay,” which uses a drum machine, giving it a more artificial sound. This is kind of a cute and catchy song, but it is not as strong as the rest of the album.

CD Track List

  1. All Depends On You
  2. Texas Time
  3. A Good Friend Is Hard To Find
  4. Julia
  5. Kids These Days
  6. Washed Away
  7. Change Looks Good On You
  8. Radio
  9. Everybody’s Crazy
  10. More Than A Song Can Say
  11. Easy To Love
  12. Wouldn’t Change A Thing
  13. Sunset Strip
  14. Still Love Lindsay

Explorer Tapes is scheduled to be released on August 13, 2021.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Cruzados: “She’s Automatic” (2021) CD Review


The Los Angeles band Cruzados formed in 1983 and released a couple of albums in the mid-1980s, and made an appearance at the beginning of Road House, before disbanding in the early 1990s. The band at that time was made up of Tito Larriva on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, Marshall Rohner on guitar (replacing original guitarist Steven Hufsteter), Tony Marsico on bass, and Chalo Quintana on drums. Marshall Rohner and Chalo Quintana have since died. Bassist and songwriter Tony Marsico now brings back the Cruzados name with a new lineup and a new album, dedicated to the memory of those members who have passed. For this album, Tony Marsico recruited three members of the hard rock band Little Caesar – Ron Young on vocals, Loren Molinare on guitar, and Mark Tremalgia on guitar. Rounding out the group is Rob Klonel on drums. Joining them on She’s Automatic are some special guests, including Dave Alvin, Steve Berlin and David Hidalgo. Much of this rock music has a raw bluesy element, and the album features all original material, written or co-written by Tony Marsico.

The album opens with “On The Tilt A Whirl,” a song that is a hell of a lot more enjoyable than the ride it is named after, and features some good work on guitar. When we were in our teens, a friend vomited on the Tilt A Whirl and tried to hold it in his mouth until the ride could be stopped. Each time we passed the ride’s attendant, we tried to get his attention to stop the ride. But to no avail. On one turn, my friend was no longer able to hold it in. There were three of us on the ride. He was in the middle. None of us was happy. That was the last time I ever went on the Tilt A Whirl. “When your feet leave the ground/And the blood rushes to your face/When the world spins upside down/You’re in the right place/Hold tight, round and round we go.” Buck Johnson is on keys on this track, and on the one that follows it, “Across The Ghost Town,” which also features some nice backing vocal work by Gia Ciambotti, adding a somewhat haunting, beautiful tone, fitting for the song’s setting. Then “Nine Million Tears” comes on strong with a steady, driving force that is instantly appealing. There is also more excellent work on guitar. Plus, this track contains some good lyrics. “Nine million tears will fall/Before our final call/One long last kiss good-bye/One night before we die.” This is one of my personal favorites.

The title track, “She’s Automatic,” has a Bo Diddley rhythm, which always works for me. This song describes a dangerous, perhaps unstable woman, though does so with a certain amount of affection. Ah, isn’t that the way? This track features some fun, lively guitar work. It’s followed by “Son Of The Blues,” which has a southern bluesy rock vibe, reminding me a bit of ZZ Top’s style. This one was co-written by Barry Goldberg, and is another really strong track. The group then moves more into the country realm with “Sad Sadie,” which features Bill Maresh on pedal steel and contains possibly the album’s best vocal performance, helping to make it another of my favorite tracks. Also, John Doe (from X) provides backing vocals. “Was it me, baby, that made you cry?” Another thing I like about this song is its hopeful aspect, heard in the line “The sun will shine again if you give it time.” “Long Black Car” is another that reminds me of early ZZ Top, in its sound and because it has that kind of confident coolness about it. Plus, it’s about a car. This one was co-written by Rick Vito, and features some delicious work on guitar. “Through the night we followed the star/Down the road to hell in a long black car.”

Dave Alvin joins the group on guitar on “Let Me Down,” a seriously enjoyable rock tune that will likely have you moving and shaking. There is a good sense of humor to this one. “When I’m dead, when I’m gone, put me in the ground/One last time, one last time, you will let me down.” And David Hidalgo (of Los Lobos) plays accordion on this track. Oh yes, this is certainly another of the disc’s highlights. The high energy continues with “Wing And A Prayer,” which delivers another great dose of rock. That’s followed by “54 Knockouts,” a totally cool track that features some nice work by Buck Johnson on piano. And Steve Berlin (of Los Lobos) joins the group on saxophone, making this one a lot of fun. Things get even cooler with “Rock That Boat,” the album’s closing track, which begins as a slow, bluesy gem and then kicks in. This one features Jimmy Z joining on harmonica.

CD Track List

  1. On The Tilt A Whirl
  2. Across This Ghost Town
  3. Nine Million Tears
  4. She’s Automatic
  5. Son Of The Blues
  6. Sad Sadie
  7. Long Black Car
  8. Let Me Down
  9. Wing And A Prayer
  10. 54 Knockouts
  11. Rock That Boat

She’s Automatic is scheduled to be released on August 13, 2021 on Scamco Records.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Maria Muldaur with Tuba Skinny: “Let’s Get Happy Together” (2021) CD Review


Over the course of her career, singer Maria Muldaur has explored many different musical realms, including folk, blues, jazz, country and rock. In the late 1970s, Maria Muldaur became a member of the Jerry Garcia Band, singing on the 1978 LP Cats Under The Stars, and then recently became involved in the Garcia Project, revisiting the spirit of the Garcia Band from that time. She even co-produced an album with the Garcia Project titled Spirit, which was released late last year. Now Maria Muldaur takes us in a different, yet equally exciting direction, down to New Orleans, with her new album, Let’s Get Happy Together, a title that certainly holds some appeal itself as we try to emerge from our period of isolation. The band backing her on this release is Tuba Skinny, and in the disc’s liner notes, Maria explains how she first heard them and how this project came about. The music here is all covers, totally delicious jazz and blues numbers from decades past, many of them lesser known gems, all of them sounding completely fresh.

And if the goal of this album, as suggested by its title, is to make us happy, that mission is accomplished with the very first track, “I Like You Best Of All,” a delightful jazz tune. This band, as you might guess, includes tuba, an instrument that somehow always manages to spread a good deal of joy, and this track even includes a brief lead. The band gets a chance to strut its stuff between verses. And Maria Muldaur, who seems quite a home in whatever musical realm she moves into, shines warmly here. This song was recorded by The Goofus Five in the 1920s. It’s followed by the album’s title track, “Let’s Get Happy Together,” written by Lil Hardin Armstrong. This is a perfect song for these strange times. It’s about ditching our troubles and doing our best to enjoy ourselves. The band sets the tone for Maria Muldaur’s entrance, and there is a tremendous amount of cheer all around, as she sings “You lost your baby, and I lost mine/I got a nickel and you got a dime/We’ll drown our troubles in wine/And we’ll get happy together.”

“Be Your Natural Self” has an easygoing vibe, and its message is a good one. The disc contains some interesting notes about the first vocalist who presented this song, Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon, who was popular in the 1920s and 1930s, and sometimes worked as a female impersonator, taking on the female roles in certain songs, before going to work at the Pentagon in the 1940s. That is something of a career change, eh? “Be Your Natural Self” is followed by “Delta Bound,” which is insanely cool and sexy right from the start, with the band establishing a delicious style and groove before Maria comes in on vocals. And she gives such a great performance here, which is what makes this track one of my personal favorites. “I’m tired of roaming/That’s why I’m homing/I’m Delta bound.” Then Maria Muldaur and Tuba Skinny give us “Swing You Sinners.” This song’s title is a command we are all happy and eager to obey, just as long as she is talking about dancing and not hanging. (Have you seen that 1930 animated short film Swing You Sinners?) “Swing when things trouble you/Swing and you can’t be blue/It’s good for you.” This one feels like it ends prematurely. I want more.

“He Ain’t Got Rhythm” is a playful, humorous song written by Irving Berlin, presented with a wonderfully light vibe. How can you keep from loving the world described here, in which rhythm is of greater importance than just about anything else? “He attracted some attention/When he found the fourth dimension/But he ain’t got rhythm/So no one’s with him/He’s the loneliest man in town.” I love Maria Muldaur’s vocal approach. She completely inhabits this song, and seems to be having a great time with it, helping to make it another of the disc’s highlights. That’s followed by yet another highlight, “Got The South In My Soul,” a slow, totally delicious gem that begins with Maria singing “Oh lord, oh lord” and is about wishing to be home in the Delta. “I want to say goodbye to darkness and spend all my days in the sun.” At a certain point, the track picks up in pace and joy, as she seems to reach that place where she longs to be. Then it ends as it began, with her singing, “Oh lord, oh lord.” So good!

“I Go For That” is another playful tune, this one about the sort of guy she goes for. Hey, any song that mentions a ukulele and also contains a Shakespeare reference is okay in my book. Plus, there is a percussion section like tap-dancing. What more could you want? It’s followed by “Patience And Fortitude,” a cheerful, positive tune. “Just keep that mellow mood, and things will come your way.” And listen to her delivery of “But now I see that’s a big mistake.” Then we get “Some Sweet Day.” What is it about these slower numbers that makes them so appealing? Whatever it is, this is another of my favorites. There is something kind of sexy about it. “When the cold winds do blow/With its ice and its snow/Your poor heart, it will yearn/Honey babe, for my return.” This is another that was originally recorded by Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon. In “Big City Blues” Maria Muldaur sings “No one smiles to help me chase these big city blues.” All of us who live in a big city have experienced this. Being lonely and down among so many people can be worse than being truly alone in some remote spot. But then again, the opportunity is there for someone to come along and give us that smile, that friendly nod or wave. “Won’t someone please talk to me/Don’t refuse, hear my plea/And help me lose these big city blues.” That’s followed by another excellent bit of blues, “Road Of Stone,” this one also about being alone, but this time while traveling. Maria totally sells it. And that’s how this wonderful album comes to a close. I’m looking forward to hearing what Maria Muldaur decides to do next.

CD Track List

  1. I Like You Best Of All
  2. Let’s Get Happy Together
  3. Be Your Natural Self
  4. Delta Bound
  5. Swing You Sinners
  6. He Ain’t Got Rhythm
  7. Got The South In My Soul
  8. I Go For That
  9. Patience And Fortitude
  10. Some Sweet Day
  11. Big City Blues
  12. Road Of Stone

Let’s Get Happy Together was released on May 7, 2021 on Stony Plain Records. It’s going to be interesting later on looking back at albums released during this crazy time. In the liner notes booklet, there is a photo of the entire band, all wearing masks.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Peggy Lee: “Something Wonderful: Peggy Lee Sings The Great American Songbook” (2021) CD Review


Peggy Lee did a lot of radio performances, beginning in the late 1930s, and including her own radio program in the early 1950s. Some of that material is now being released. On Record Store Day last week, we saw the release of World Broadcast Recordings (1955) Volume 1, containing material she recorded for radio syndication. A few months earlier, a two-disc set of music she performed live on radio in 1952 was released. Titled Something Wonderful: Peggy Lee Sings The Great American Songbook, this set contains a lot of excellent music from her own radio program. The songs are presented in groups, organized by their composers rather than recording dates, which is interesting. And those composers in many cases join her on vocals for certain tracks. The liner notes include information on each of the composers, as well as biographical information on Peggy Lee herself. Incredibly, most of these tracks had not been released on CD (or vinyl, for that matter) until now.

Disc One

The fist disc begins with the radio program’s introduction, with the announcer telling us, “You’ve got a date with Peggy Lee.” That is followed by Peggy Lee’s introduction of Johnny Mercer, the first composer to be featured in this two-disc set. There is a bit of banter between them, and then they sing “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive” as a duet. It’s a great rendition, so warm, so fun. Hey, let’s all try to “eliminate the negative,” perhaps a tall order in these strange days, but made easier with music like this. By the way, a different version of this song is included on the Record Store Day release. “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive” is followed by “Goody Goody,” a song that is always a delight, particularly the straightforward way Peggy Lee delivers it. There is a short introduction to “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” one of my personal favorite tracks from the first disc. This version is nearly as good as Ray Charles’ take on it, and is kind of sexy. It is, however, a bit short, the ending coming rather suddenly. “(Ah, The Apple Trees) When The World Was Young” has a dreamy, nostalgic atmosphere. The past often sounds better than the present, doesn’t it? And Peggy Lee does a fantastic job taking on the role of a woman who is much older than she was at the time. “It’s any old millionaire in a storm/For I’ve got my mink to keep my heart warm.” Before the final track in the Johnny Mercer section of this disc, Peggy Lee introduces Johnny Mercer and they joke around a bit, with Peggy Lee telling him, “Please step in vocally whenever the key fits.”  That last track is a medley, with perhaps the best part being when Johnny Mercer briefly sings an update about his daughter. That is adorable.

The next section features music written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, and one by Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. This section begins with a couple of songs from Babes In Arms, “My Funny Valentine” and “The Lady Is A Tramp.” She dedicates “My Funny Valentine” to a little girl, adding “Her looks are not laughable, and she is photographable.” I love the way her vocal approach suddenly changes when “The Lady Is A Tramp” kicks in. “I get too hungry for dinner at eight/I like the theatre, but never come late/I never bother with people I hate.” This section also contains a pretty version of “I Could Write A Book” and a lively rendition of “Lover” with a Latin rhythm. Here we also have “Something Wonderful,” the song written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, and the one that gives this collection its title. Peggy Lee delivers a rendition that is both thoughtful and dramatic.

The first disc also includes a group of songs composed by Cole Porter, beginning with a bright, lively rendition of “From This Moment On.” I love the work on drums. I do wish this set included a complete list of the musicians who perform on these tracks. “From This Moment On” is followed by “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” As with “Lover,” she adds a Latin vibe to this song, and it works really well. Then Peggy Lee’s vocal approach to “What Is This Thing Called Love?” seems to encompass the various ways we feel about love. The first disc concludes with a couple of tracks written by Matt Dennis, beginning with the bluesy and wonderful “Everything Happens To Me.” The second track is actually a medley of three of his songs, with Matt Dennis joining her on vocals for two of the three, including the first, “We Belong Together.” “Angel Eyes” is sultry and moving, and I wish Peggy Lee did the full song here. The medley wraps up with “Let’s Get Away From It All,” done as a duet with Matt. Dennis.

Disc Two

The second disc opens with a section of music composed by Peggy Lee herself, starting with “It’s A Good Day,” which she co-wrote with her husband, guitarist Dave Barbour. “And it’s a good day for curing your ills/So take a deep breath and throw away the pills.” This track features some great work on drums, which pumps this version full of energy. A different version of this song was included on the recent Record Store Day release. “It’s A Good Day” is followed by “I Don’t Know Enough About You.” I love her playful introduction to this one, particularly when she says the song “applies to a lot of people who have a dearth of knowledge about a plethora of subjects.” Wonderful! This track is another highlight of this collection. She is both playful and seductive here. This was also co-written with then-husband Dave Barbour. “Mañana” is a song that I’ve always enjoyed. And yes, I suppose in these overly sensitive days someone could be offended by how she adopts a Mexican accent, but just relax, this song is a lot of fun. There is a bit of information about this song in the collection’s liner notes. “Whee Baby” is the final of the Peggy Lee-penned songs, this one co-written by Alice Larson. It is also fun, with a good bass line and some wonderful work from the horn section.

Then we get a couple of tracks written by Hoagy Carmichael, starting with a sweet, gentle, pretty rendition of “Skylark.” It’s good to hear this amount of romance in music, something that seems lacking in much of the pop material of today. Of course, this song could have been included in the Johnny Mercer section, as he co-wrote it. The second track is another medley, containing portions of such beloved songs as “Georgia On My Mind” and “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” with banter between Peggy Lee and Hoagy Carmichael as they transition from one song to another. Hoagy joins Peggy Lee on vocals for “Two Sleepy People.” We then move to material by Frank Loesser, beginning with “Hoop Dee Doo,” another lively number. Here she sings, “I hear a polka and my troubles are through.” I’m not sure anyone feels that way anymore, but this track is fun. “This kind of music is like heaven to me.” Peggy Lee introduces Frank Loesser, and that leads to another medley, with Frank joining her on vocals. This medley includes a lovely rendition of “On A Slow Boat To China” and a totally delightful duet of “A Bushel And A Peck,” and concludes with “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” one of the absolute best songs associated with the Christmas holiday, also, of course, done as a duet.

The final section contains songs by a variety of songwriters. It begins with a gorgeous version of “Somebody Loves Me” with Peggy Lee at her most sensual. She is sultry and sexy again as she sings “Unforgettable,” written by Irving Gordon. Then I love that work on piano on “Lullaby Of Broadway.” Peggy Lee introduces “Alone Together” as “one of the most beautiful ballads ever.” Certainly this rendition is beautiful. That is followed by a bright rendition of “When You’re Smiling” and then “Try A Little Tenderness.” I first heard the Otis Redding and Three Dog Night renditions of “Try A Little Tenderness” in my early teens, not guessing that the song was quite a bit older than those recordings. Peggy Lee’s take on this is as tender as the lyrics propose we be. “You know it’s not just sentimental, she has her grief and care/And a word that’s kind and gentle makes it easier to bear.” “You know how this one goes, I’ll bet,” she says at the beginning of “All Of Me,” which closes out the collection. I still can’t help but think of the Steve Martin/Lily Tomlin film whenever I hear this one. Peggy Lee gives us a really good rendition here.

CD Track List

Disc One

  1. Peggy Lee Introduction
  2. Johnny Mercer Introduction
  3. Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive
  4. Goody Goody
  5. Come Rain Or Come Shine
  6. That Old Black Magic
  7. (Ah, The Apple Trees) When The World Was Young
  8. Johnny Mercer Introduction
  9. Medley: Jeepers Creepers/Too Marvelous For Words/Mandy Is Two/Blues In The Night
  10. My Funny Valentine
  11. The Lady Is A Tramp
  12. I Could Write A Book
  13. This Can’t Be Love
  14. Lover
  15. Something Wonderful
  16. Mountain Greenery
  17. From This Moment On
  18. I’ve Got You Under My Skin
  19. What Is This Thing  Called Love?
  20. Just One Of Those Things
  21. Everything Happens To Me
  22. Medley: We Belong Together/Angel Eyes/Let’s Get Away From It All

Disc Two

  1. It’s A Good Day
  2. I Don’t Know Enough About You
  3. Mañana
  4. Whee Baby
  5. Skylark
  6. Medley: Georgia On My Mind/I Get Along Without You Very Well/Old Rockin’ Chair/Little Old Lady/Small Fry/Two Sleepy People
  7. Hoop Dee Doo
  8. Frank Loesser Introduction
  9. Medley: Jingle, Jangle, Jingle/If I Were A Bell/On A Slow Boat To China/A Bushel And A Peck/Baby, It’s Cold Outside
  10. Introduction
  11. Somebody Loves Me
  12. Oh, Look At Me Now
  13. Unforgettable
  14. Lullaby Of Broadway
  15. Alone Together
  16. When You’re Smiling
  17. Try A Little Tenderness
  18. All Of Me

Something Wonderful: Peggy Lee Sings The Great American Songbook was released on April 9, 2021 through Omnivore Recordings.