Sunday, April 18, 2021

The 69 Cats: “Seven Year Itch” (2021) CD Review

These days it seems that death is in the air and on our minds. Be it the pandemic, or the gun problem which is growing by leaps and bounds every damn day, we feel surrounded by death. It is too much to deal with, and so one way to approach the subject is with a morbid sense of humor. Enter The 69 Cats, a delightfully twisted macabre group made up of Jyrki 69 (real name: Jyrki Linnankiva; of The 69 Eyes) on vocals; Danny B. Harvey  (of Headcat 13) on guitar, keyboards and vocals; Kim Nekroman (of Nekromantix) on bass, and Rat Scabies (real name: Chris Millar; of The Damned) on drums. The group’s new album, Seven Year Itch, features some special guests on certain tracks, and contains mostly original material, written or co-written by Danny B. Harvey. The album’s title, of course, comes from the Marilyn Monroe film directed by Billy Wilder, and the album’s cover is a play on the famous Andy Warhol portrait of Monroe.

Seven Year Itch opens with an original number, “She’s Hot,” with Jyrki’s great deep, haunting voice coming from six feet below, singing “When she’s dancing on my grave, she’s on fire.” And this track features some great classic rock and roll guitar. That’s followed by a cover of “Hollywood’s Bleeding,” originally recorded by Post Malone. On this track, The 69 Cats are joined by Annie Marie Lewis on backing vocals. “You never took the time to get to know me/We’re scared of losing something that we never found/We’re running out of reasons, but we can’t let go/Yeah, Hollywood is bleeding, but we call it home.” This song was released as the album’s first single. In “(You’re) The Kind Of Girl I Need,” an original song, Jyrki sings  You’re the kind of the girl that makes me scream.” Ah, is there any better compliment in this dark realm? I love this song. It is a lot of fun, featuring some good work on guitar. At certain points, this track reminds me a bit of “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone.”

A kind of dark surf sound is established at the beginning of “Good Time To Die,” like riding a wave straight into hell. And indeed, here they sing, “It’s a lonely night for a lonely stranger/What’s in the stars, it’s in your nature/It’s been a while since I felt danger/The devil’s gonna get you, the devil’s gonna get you, the devil’s gonna get you now.” This one was written by Danny B. Harvey and Jyrki 69. By the way, the song’s title reminds me of Klingons. What is it they say? “Today is a good day to die.” That’s followed by “Graveyard Blues,” another fun track written by Danny B. Harvey and Jyrki 69. It has a really good groove. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “Shortly after midnight, he took his own life/Next day he was buried beside his sweet wife/Now there are two ghosts in love and together/But they can never touch, only stare at each other.”

“Hey World” is a song that Danny B. Harvey wrote with Sky Saxon, apparently for an album the two were working on before Saxon’s death in 2009. This track features Sky Saxon’s vocal work, which is cool. I love this kind of rock and roll, it is good music to cut loose to. Then “(Let’s Go) Psycho” comes on hard and fast, and will have you moving before you even know what’s happening. I can certainly use this music right now, and I imagine there are plenty of other folks out there who are eager for this. Are the screams those of the victor or victim? It hardly matters. Such distinctions are a thing of the past, for now we are all a mass of blood and limbs and anger and desire. And then there is a cool spoken word section in the second half: “We are the victims of the techno age/Violence, lust and lots of rage.” Well, there you have it. This is another older song, written twenty years ago by Danny B. Harvey and Brigitte Handley, and included on Handley’s Stand Your Ground EP. And Brigitte Handley is present on this version too, providing backing vocals.

“Vampire Shuffle” opens with the question “What you want me to do?” Then the question becomes “What you want me to do with you?” Ah, well, that’s another question altogether, isn’t it? This is a song about becoming a vampire. Ah yes, a lovely dance of the doomed. “You will feel no sorrow, you will feel no pain.” And the line “We can dance on your grave” is an interesting variation on the line from the album’s opening number.  Then they deliver a great cover of “Teddy Boy Boogie,” a song originally recorded by Crazy Cavan ‘N’ The Rhythm Rockers, and also done by Zombie Ghost Train. This is another ridiculously fun number. Sure, it might begin with a mundane concern, being stopped by the cops, “Along came a copper and he took down my name,” but the tables soon change: “So I whipped out my razor and slit his throat.” There might be something cathartic about those lines for some folks, in these days when the police present as much danger as criminals. A later verse brings him in contact with the police again, with a similar outcome: “A cop car came up from behind/So I whipped out my razor and changed his mind.”

Some howling winds or howling creatures populate the world of the instrumental track “The Hell Of The Mountain King.” This is another favorite of mine. I love Grieg’s “In The Hall Of The Mountain King,” and for a time was collecting as many versions of that piece as I could find (I still need to pick up The Who’s rendition at some point). This is an absolutely fantastic addition to that collection, and it features some great guitar work. Then “I’m Evil” comes strutting in, and it begins with that perennial blues line, “Well, I woke up this morning.” He tells us straight out, “You know, I’m evil/Evil as a man can be/Well, I’m so damn evil.” And it’s not like he is really bragging either, just stating a fact, with perhaps a bit of a confession too, as in these lines: “Well, she said she’s going to love me until the day she dies/I took out my pistol and shot her between the eyes/Because I’m evil/Evil as a man can be.” The album then concludes with a cover of “It Ain’t Enough,” a song written by Larry Wallis. I dig the energy of this song, and of the entire album.

CD Track List

  1. She’s Hot
  2. Hollywood’s Bleeding
  3. (You’re) The Kind Of Girl I Need
  4. Good Time To Die
  5. Graveyard Blues
  6. Hey World
  7. (Let’s Go) Psycho
  8. Vampire Shuffle
  9. Teddy Boy Boogie
  10. The Hell Of The Mountain King
  11. I’m Evil
  12. It Ain’t Enough

Seven Year Itch was released on April 16, 2021 on Cleopatra Records, and is available on both CD and vinyl (the vinyl, by the way, is pink).

Friday, April 16, 2021

Roof Beams: “This Life Must Be Long” (2020) Vinyl Review

Roof Beams is a folk-rock band based in Washington, D.C., led by Nathan Robinson, who wrote all the material on the latest album, This Life Must Be Long. Nathan Robinson provides the lead vocals, and plays acoustic guitar, harmonica, melodica, keyboards and percussion. His band mates on this release are Bill Smyth on acoustic guitar, electric guitar, pedal steel, bass, keyboards and percussion; and Phillips Saylor Wisor on electric guitar, banjo, mandolin and vocals. And they create a deliciously raw and true sound. The band’s name comes from J.D. Salinger’s Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenters, a novella that is paired with Seymour: An Introduction, following members of the Glass family, first written about in what is one of the world’s absolute best short stories, “A Perfect Day For Bananafish.” (Seriously, if you haven’t read that story, I strongly urge you to pick up a copy of Nine Stories. Also, it is a fun story to read aloud.) Anyway, if you are going to call to mind a literary figure as revered as J.D. Salinger, then you’d better have the lyrical content and ability to back it up. Well, this band certainly does. This Life Must Be Long follows 2017’s Charon.

Side A

One of my favorite movies is Magnolia, and one of its most arresting scenes is the one in which Jason Robards talks about regret. At one point he says, “Life ain’t short, it’s long.” For me, there are constant reminders of the brevity of life, and for that reason that line stands out, as I try to understand it, to look at life differently. Roof Beams open their new album with its title track, “This Life Must Be Long,” a song with rather pretty and unpolished folk sound. And if you’re looking for some good, original lyrics, here is a taste from this opening track: “Where was she when I was sad and young, mad at some man I hadn’t become//What is this one life that I live? This drug I skip? This love I give?” This track also features some good work on harmonica toward the end. And it ends with the lines, “This life must be long/This life must be long/This life must be long/This life must be long/Stop me if I’m…” It’s interesting that the final word, which we all assume is “wrong,” is left out. Is the idea that he is wrong, and has been stopped? Perhaps. That is followed by “Outer Rings,” and the presence of mandolin gives this one a more cheerful vibe from the start. There is, in contrast, a weariness to the vocal delivery, an ache. And I like that he asks “Everyone’s chosen one of two sides/I’ve got mine, but is it right?” The question is repeated, which perhaps makes up for the many people out there who never ask the question, though have clearly chosen a side. One thing I love about this band is that they seem to be asking questions rather than pretending to have answers, and in doing that, I think they forge a stronger connection to us.

Okay, maybe it’s because I’m a Pisces, but the opening line of “Buckle” makes me laugh out loud: “Every single one of our vices circling each other like Pisces.” I love the honest humor to this song, which catches me by surprise. The phrase “dream up the perfect on-stage banter” also stands out for me, as rehearsed stage banter is something that has always turned me off. The first side of the record concludes with “Carry On,” which has an interesting sound. The core might be folk, but there are other elements at play here, with sounds from electronic pop. And check out these lines: “They were never right, but they made the wrong things sound fun/They were never right, but then neither is anyone.” Actually, a lot of lyrics stand out, particularly these lines: “God’s been cruel and so have I” and “I’ve been screening calls from people I care about/I just couldn’t answer them. I’m sure they’ll figure it out.” Perfect lines for these strange days when we all feel somewhat unmoored.

Side B

This band knows how to connect to us at our most confused and human levels. I’ve always believed that no one knows anything, that all of us are flailing about in the wind, trying to keep from getting too hurt or coming across as too stupid, and this band seems in touch with that sense, especially in a song like “Awareness,” one of my personal favorites on this record. I love these lines: “I know someday I’ll be a better man/Until then, please put up with me the best you can.” That’s followed by “Clean Break,” an interesting and unusual track that reaches into biblical times, even guessing the perspective of Lazarus: “If I were Lazarus, stumbling out of the cave/I wouldn’t be grateful, I’d probably say that Jesus was a friend of mine. But now here I stand, his decaying punchline.”  There is a wonderful humor to this song, yet it has something important to say: “For God’s sake, think about somebody else/Try to feel just how they felt/I promise you, you won’t break,” the lines the song leaves us with.

Earlier I mentioned how I love that this band asks questions. Well, the lyrics to “Witness Me” are almost entirely questions. This is a song that reaches out, a song of need and vulnerability. “Will you witness me, will you witness me?/Will you spare me the shame of asking and witness me?” And it features some nice work on both harmonica and pedal steel, giving it the feel of longing, contrasting with the mandolin. As with the first side, the second side concludes with a track that utilizes elements far outside of folk, this one with electronic sounds and a steady, mechanical-type beat. Titled “My Business,” it has some interesting pauses and breaths too. And, as with all of this band’s songs, it features some really good lyrics. “It’s breaking up the capillaries under my skin/It feels good for an hour, so I’ll do it again/I’m tired all the time/When I’m alone, I just lose my mind.” Those last two lines certainly speak to us in this crazy time of isolation amid a pandemic. I hope we’ll meet on the other side of this craziness soon. At the end of the song, the voice seems to come from some other plane. “There is no other way through this.”

Record Track List

Side A

  1. This Life Must Be Long
  2. Outer Rings
  3. Buckle
  4. Carry On

Side B

  1. Awareness
  2. Clean Break
  3. Witness Me
  4. My Business

This Life Must Be Long was released on December 4, 2020.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Steve Goodman: “It Sure Looked Good On Paper: The Steve Goodman Demos” (2021) CD Review

Steve Goodman, a widely influential singer and songwriter, wrote and recorded a lot of excellent material, though he will probably always be known primarily for writing “City Of New Orleans,” which was a hit for Arlo Guthrie. Steve Goodman included his own version of that song on his debut, self-titled album. A different version of that song is the first track on the new release, It Sure Looked Good On Paper: The Steve Goodman Demos. This disc contains seventy-six minutes of previously unreleased Steve Goodman recordings, a mix of solo demos and band demos. That’s right, nothing on this album was heard before, which is remarkable, especially considering that several previously unreleased tracks were included in the recent re-issues of his albums. A lot of these tracks are from early in Steve Goodman’s recording career, being demos of songs that would end up on his debut LP, but there are also some great tracks from the end of his career, including two songs intended for the soundtrack of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.

The disc opens with a full-band demo of “City Of New Orleans.” It is a wonderfully cheerful rendition, moving at a good pace, seeming just a bit faster than his originally released version. There is a cool bridge just past the halfway point, and a different ending. This track makes me want to hit the road, in a car if not a train, and wake up next to some beautiful vista. That’s followed by a solo demo of “The Sun & The Bridge,” a perfect choice, for it begins in the morning with the line “The sun rose over the bridge every morning.” This is a mellower, more introspective number, with some great lines like “Letting poets do all my thinking for me” and “I can’t stop my mind from rambling, so it goes.” “Climb The Hills To Dale” is another mellow track, though this one has the full band. There is a somber tone, and his delivery has a compelling sound. “And we’d walk down mountain paths together/Sharing dreams to last forever/But nevermore will I wander to that high and snowy hand/No more my love walks with me hand in hand.”

This disc includes a solo demo of “Jazzman,” a song that would be included on Steve Goodman’s debut album, this version having a very different vibe from that album version. I prefer this solo version. “Mama, I’m a jazzman trying a trick or two.” This is one of only a few songs on this release not written by Steve Goodman. It was written by Edward Holstein. That’s followed by a band demo of “Hands On Time.” These lines certainly feel like they’re speaking to us in the strange days: “But if there’s no fear, you can keep your head clear/And trouble won’t cloud up your mind/And you won’t get so lonely, with time on your hands/You have your hands on some time.”

The band demo of “Eight Ball Blues” included here has a different sound from the track that would be included on Steve Goodman’s self-titled LP, and again, I think this version is actually better. This is kind of a playful number. “And I wish I had the common sense to be satisfied with me/Is this the part where I came in, I’ve seen this show before/And I’ve had me a couple too many, but I think I can find the door.” There are a lot of lines that ought to bring a smile to your face. That’s followed by the demo of another song from his first album, “Would You Like To Learn To Dance,” this one a solo demo, with a sweet, tender and intimate sound and delivery. “Would you like to learn to love?/Well, that’s something else again/I can show you how to sing and smile and dance/But, oh, I have no keys to open your heart/No way that I could make you take the chance.”

It’s wonderful that this release includes so many tracks from the early days. “Turnpike Tom” is another song from that debut release. This solo demo version features some excellent work on guitar. The song’s last line, “And remember that you only fall for lies and stories when you really want to,” makes me ponder a large segment of this country’s population. A lot of folks must really want to be lied to, for they are still clinging to Trump’s soiled coattails.  And speaking of shady politics, that is followed by “Ballad Of Paul Powell,” though in the spoken word intro, Steve says “This song is called ‘When It’s Coupon-Clipping Time At The Racetrack, Baby Baby Baby, I’ll Come Shoeboxing Back To You.’” Hell, maybe things never change, for these lines seem to be speaking directly about that bum who oh-so-recently left the White House: “He swore to serve ‘em young, and he swore to serve ‘em old/And he swore to serve ‘em bullshit while he kept all the gold.” He is angrier in this song than in most, singing, “And I hope your coffin rusts/And you won’t be around to rob us/No, you won’t be around to rob us/No, you won’t come around to rob us anymore.”

“Yellow Coat” is yet another song from his debut album, this one a solo demo. This song feels like a personal letter, or perhaps phone call, sort of in the same vein as Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat.”  Do your neighbors still complain a bit when the music gets too loud/Does your old cat still have to sleep up on the bed/Do you still walk around like your head was in the clouds.” The disc’s final track from that first album is “You Never Even Call Me By My Name,” a song co-written by John Prine and recorded by David Allan Coe. This is a solo demo version. “You don’t have to call me darling, darling/But you never even call me by my name.” And, yes, it includes that spoken word section where he mentions Waylon Jennings, Charley Pride and Merle Haggard. That is followed by solo demos of two songs that would be included on Steve Goodman’s 1972 LP Somebody Else’s Troubles – “The Dutchman,” which was written by Michael Smith, and “Song For David.”

Steve Goodman wrote a lot of excellent lyrics. Check out these lines from “Kiss Me Goodbye Again”: “And I wanted to stay but was scared of the sorrow/Your beauty had brought to the room/I was waiting around for times to get worse/Before they got better and I found/That all I was doing was dragging us down to the ground.” This track is one of my personal favorites. It is followed by a cover of “The Auctioneer,” a song written by Leroy Van Dyke and Buddy Black. This song was included on the compilation No Big Surprise: The Steve Goodman Anthology, released in 1994, and on Live ’69, which was released last year. The version here is a solo demo, a studio recording. Then we get “Six Pack,” a song about someone who races cars and has a wandering soul. “I fell in love a time or two, but no one’s ever found a way to make me stay/And every time I settled down, the sound of roaring engines took my mind away/I never needed anyone, and I was sure that no one needed me.” This song was written for the 1980 film Used Cars, but not used.

Two songs on this disc were written for the 1982 Steve Martin film Dead Man Don’t Wear Plaid (a movie I loved as a kid, but haven’t revisited). Neither song ended up being used in the film. The first is titled “Dead Man Don’t Wear Plaid,” and in this one Steve Goodman sings “They never take an educated guess/Dead men don’t wear plaid/They’re always late for dinner/Because dead man can’t remember your address.” It also features a bit of whistling at the end. I love this song, and wonder why it wasn’t included in the film. I need to watch that movie again. “Face On The Cutting Room Floor” is the second track written for that movie, and it too is a totally delightful number. “No one will give her a star on the walk/She’d have a hundred if pillows could talk/Where have I seen her before/She’s the face on the cutting room floor.” That’s followed by the album’s title track, “It Sure Looked Good On Paper.” This one had me laughing before the song even started, with that spoken word introduction. He tells us: “I have one verse and the chorus. This doesn’t have to be the first verse. In fact, it would be better if it wasn’t.” And halfway through the song, he hums along with the guitar. “So there’s that one,” he says at the end. Then he adds, “Help.” The album concludes with “The Water Is Wide,” a song that was included on Artistic Hair. This is another that Steve Goodman did not write. The version here, a solo demo, is quite a bit longer than that album version.

CD Track List

  1. City Of New Orleans
  2. The Sun & The Bridge
  3. Climb The Hills To Dale
  4. Jazzman
  5. Hands On Time
  6. Eight Ball Blues
  7. Would You Like To Learn Do Dance
  8. Turnpike Tom
  9. Ballad Of Paul Powell
  10. Yellow Coat
  11. You Never Even Call Me By My Name
  12. The Dutchman
  13. Song For David
  14. Kiss Me Goodbye Again
  15. The Auctioneer
  16. Six Pack
  17. Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid
  18. Face On The Cutting Room Floor
  19. It Sure Looked Good On Paper
  20. The Water Is Wide

It Sure Looked Good On Paper: The Steve Goodman Demos is scheduled to be released on May 14, 2021 through Omnivore Recordings.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Jerry Garcia Band: “Garcia Live Volume 11” (2019) CD Review

There have been very few official releases from the last few years of Jerry Garcia’s life. At that time, the Grateful Dead seemed to be struggling a bit. Folks have claimed that their last great run was the Boston 1991 series of shows. I was there, and, yes, all six shows were fantastic. However, after that there were still plenty of great moments, even magical, life-changing moments, and some excellent shows. But a spectacular tour or run of shows was basically a thing of the past. And much of that was due to Jerry Garcia’s declining health.  Yet, during those years, for whatever reason, the Jerry Garcia Band shows seemed as strong as ever. Perhaps it was because the scene wasn’t as crazy, and Jerry felt less pressure. Who knows? Volume 11 in the Garcia Live series contains the complete show that the Jerry Garcia Band performed on November 11, 1993 in Providence, Rhode Island.

Disc 1

The first disc contains the complete first set. The band kicks off the first set with “Cats Under The Stars,” always a good choice for show opener, with that fun groove and lines like “I ain’t ready yet to go to bed/Think I’ll take a walk downtown instead.” And this is a pretty good version. The jam isn’t spectacular, but it is solid. After all, this is just the beginning, to pull the crowd together and get ‘em dancing. Those backing vocals sound so good. It’s followed by one of my all-time favorite Jerry Garcia songs, “Mission In The Rain.” I was always drawn to his slower, more sorrowful, soulful songs, and in the later years, those were the songs that seemed to really shine the most often, the songs where the magic was most likely to happen. And this song is certainly a highlight of the first set. Jerry really gets into it vocally almost from the start. And his guitar has moments of great beauty.  All the things I planned to do, I only did halfway.” This is an excellent rendition.

Things get fun again with a cover of “That’s What Love Will Make You Do,” one of those delicious, somewhat reluctant declarations of love, which Jerry handles so well. And I love Melvin Seals’ lead here, which spirals up from the ground into the skies and then brings us back down again, before catching fire. And then Jerry’s voice sounds so damn good and smooth and soulful at the beginning of Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist Of Fate,” with just a bit of ache. Again, it is these slower songs where Jerry is at his best. His guitar has a fluid quality, like it is reaching at you from under the waves of a clear blue ocean. Sure, Jerry forgets the lyrics at one point, and interestingly comes back with the line “And forgot about that simple twist of fate.” Perfect. Those moments worked just as well to bring everyone together. The bass lead by John Kahn is a little weird, a bit jarring at first, but this is still one of the set’s highlights, and it ends gloriously.

Jerry then leads the group into a fun and groovy version of “Ain’t No Bread In The Breadbox,” featuring some delicious harmonies on the chorus. “Open up your eyes, little darling/It’s time to move along.” And this track certainly gets us moving and shaking. We then get into gospel territory with “My Sisters And Brothers,” another song I remember the crowds always enjoying. “Through this world of trouble, we’ve got to love one another.” And this song reminds us that “We’re only passing through.” Indeed. The band then wraps up the first set with a good version of “Deal.”

Disc 2

The second disc contains the complete second set. Jerry opens the second set with a sweet, slow, kind of mellow rendition of “The Way You Do The Things You Do.” They really ease into the second set with this cover, and even the jam has something of a laid-back quality. Then approximately ten minutes in, there is a great, jazzy section, with Melvin and Jerry interacting wonderfully. That section is what really stands out in this version. Absolutely magnificent stuff. And there is a cool vocal section at the end. Unlike the first set, this set contains no original material, and the band follows “The Way You Do The Things You Do” with a cover of Van Morrison’s “He Ain’t Give You None,” Jerry giving a really good, passionate vocal performance, and taking us to a wonderful place. Then during the jam, Melvin delivers some great stuff on keys, and the song takes on a pleasant, cheerful vibe.

I love the way Jerry Garcia handles “Dear Prudence,” adding so much to the original Beatles version, giving it a great, soulful quality. This is a beautiful rendition, though honestly I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anything less from Jerry on this song. The jam gathers a good amount of energy. The song then slows down at the end, and instead of returning to the chorus, leads straight into “When The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game,” written by Smokey Robinson. Jerry gets into the emotional core of the song, giving us an earnest rendition.

Jerry then takes the group into “Don’t Let Go,” a song that was always appreciated and usually got the crowd excited, for it has a great groove, a lot of energy, and usually plenty of space for jamming. I totally dig David Kemper’s work on drums. Does Jerry forget the lyrics at one point? No matter, this is a really good version, and, as you’d expect, it features some excellent jamming, with things getting loose at moments, even drifting into spacey territory. Basically, everything we could want. They then wrap up the show with “Midnight Moonlight,” a song from Jerry’s bluegrass days with Old & In The Way. The song, written by Peter Rowan, is a whole lot of fun, a cheerful number with uplifting energy and some nice work on keys, a great choice to send folks off into the night.

CD Track List

Disc 1

  1. Cats Under The Stars
  2. Mission In The Rain
  3. That’s What Love Will Make You Do
  4. Simple Twist Of Fate
  5. Ain’t No Bread In The Breadbox
  6. My Sisters And Brothers
  7. Deal

Disc 2

  1. The Way You Do The Things You Do
  2. He Ain’t Give You None
  3. Dear Prudence >
  4. When The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game
  5. Don’t Let Go
  6. Midnight Moonlight

Garcia Live Volume 11 was released on May 23, 2019.

Monday, April 12, 2021

James Houlahan: “Ordinary Eye” (2020) CD Review

In these strange and often ugly times, we turn to songwriters to help us make sense of it all, to help us process what we’re seeing, and to let us know we are not alone in whatever it is we are experiencing and feeling. James Houlahan proves himself once again to be a talented and relevant songwriter on his latest release, Ordinary Eye. This follows his 2018 album, The Wheel Still In Spin, and as on that one, here he is joined by Fernando Perdomo on keyboards, bass and acoustic guitar; Danny Frankel on drums and percussion; and Esther Clark on vocals. On this album he is also joined by the incredible Scarlet Rivera on violin. You know her from her work with Bob Dylan and several other artists, as well as from her own solo career. Ordinary Eye features all original material, written by James Houlahan, songs to help us face and deal with these times. By the way, the CD’s cover art work is also perfect for our times – on a turbulent sea, full of sharks and a mermaid beckoning him to his doom, with his boat damaged and about to go down, the man is reclining on a giant record, seemingly saved by music. That’s how it has felt for many of us for more than a year now, with new releases like this one keeping us relatively sane in a crazy and dangerous world.

With a title like “As It Is,” I was expecting the album’s opening track to be about giving up to an extent, like that oft-heard sentence “It is what it is.” And indeed, when this one starts, there is an air of melancholy, its opening line being “There’s a dark cloud over everything.” But he follows that line with these: “But I’ve got the guts to stand here and sing/A song that won’t change a thing/A simple dream of love for everything/As it is.” Yes, it is about acceptance, but not necessarily about giving up. And so it is an important song for us to listen to these days, when even acceptance is, or seems, a difficult and bitter thing. To look honestly and openly at all that surrounds us, to take in the truth. There is something comforting in this song. “All I want for now is clarity/To behold everything that I see/As it is.” Then some wonderful work by Scarlet Rivera on violin opens the second track, “Tomorrow’s Had Enough Of Me” (a title I love, by the way), and her presence is appreciated throughout the track. This song has a sweet and gentle sound and vibe. “All these days march by like soldiers/Searching for another war.” A more cheerful, peppy groove is established at the beginning of “Tehachapi Dust,” a fun song that might get you moving and smiling. I really love that work on drums. “Hit a bit of bad air/Gave us all a shake/Thought maybe I’d sleep/But I stayed awake.”

“Eye Of The Storm” opens with the depressing line “The bottle’s almost empty,” and the picture painted in these lyrics is of a lonely man at a bar at the end of the night. Yet, it does become encouraging and optimistic soon enough, as he drifts in his mind: “Dream about the leap/I’ll take with you/Where we fly/Through hurricane sky/Searching for the eye/Where I’ll see you once again.” I also really like that instrumental section toward the end, particularly that work on guitar. That’s followed by “What Is Our Love,” which has a pleasant rhythm, accompanied by more wonderful work on violin. “It’s more efficient to be without pain,” James Houlahan sings at this beginning of this one. Yes, another compelling opening line. He also sings, “It’s not productive to wander alone.” Interesting, his choice of words, for “efficient” and “productive” are not words you’d expect in a song about love. There is also something playful in his references to smart phones and drones. And the album’s cover comes to mind when I hear the lines “You’ve got me feeling this will all blow over/A heart-wrecked sailor brought to land.”

“Down In The Mud” has a darker, bluesy sound. Its opening lines are “My world is burning in a way it’s never been/Our world is burning, and the flames are closing in.” There is a glorious and shared pain and ache in his voice. Just listen to his delivery of lines like “I can feel it in my blood” and “I’m kneeling down in the mud.” This track also features some effective, plaintive guitar work. James returns to a folk sound on “Walking Through The Fire,” which features more good work on violin. “And the places we’ve yet to see/And the people we’ve yet to be/As the flames they grow higher and higher/Walking through the fire.”

In Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut wrote that many people are desperately in need of the message, “You are not alone.” That feels truer these days than ever before. In “You Are Not Alone,” James Houlahan sings, “Getting sick of all the daily hatred/Weary of all the constant lies/Wondering where is our sense of justice/You want it there right before your eyes/I want you to know you are not alone.” And yes, this song has the soothing and uplifting effect we are looking for. And at the end, a whistle announces a different section, dominated by some cool percussion, making us feel that we are on the edge of change. That’s followed by “The Jailer,” an interesting and unusual track in which he sings “Stop thinking about the jailer/Stop thinking about the time.” Then “All These Blues” is a beautiful and moving song with a strong vocal performance. “All that dreaming we can’t have back/Cast my worries to the seven winds/Roll my dice with a hand that wins/And if I lose, I’ll be back again.”

Scarlet Rivera delivers more wonderful work and expressive on violin on “On My Own,” a song that has a bit of a Neil Young vibe. The album then concludes with “Writ In Water,” a strange and engaging song. The beat sometimes has a New Orleans flavor, like a celebration, yet the song also has a blues feel, with a raw delivery. James Houlahan certainly keeps things interesting. This track also provides the album with its title in the lines, “There’s a subtle cry for morning/Rising to my ears/Promising freedom/From popular fears/There’s a mighty ghost howling/Through a skeleton of years/Ordinary eye/Diamond tears.”

CD Track List

  1. As It Is
  2. Tomorrow’s Had Enough Of Me
  3. Tehachapi Dust
  4. Eye Of The Storm
  5. What Is Our Love
  6. Down In The Mud
  7. Walking Through The Fire
  8. You Are Not Alone
  9. The Jailer
  10. All These Blues
  11. On My Own
  12. Writ In Water

Ordinary Eye was released on November 20, 2020.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Babyflow: “Oblivious” (2021) Vinyl Review

What strange times we live in, eh? I’m sure I’m not the only one who is completely exhausted by the pandemic, tired of wearing a mask, and even more sick of the lingering idiocy of the Republican Party, which is still residing somewhere in Donald Trump’s lower intestine. Well, a sticker on the plastic wrap of Oblivious, the debut vinyl release from Babyflow, announces the album is “Your indie solution to your Covid Trump hangover.” Perfect. We need that. Babyflow is the project of Anthony W. Rogers, and this album follows his 2018 release One Day (A Journal). Like that album, this one is wonderfully quirky and raw, and does not shy away from addressing our current troubles and those who are, at least partially, responsible. Some of the tracks are humorous commercials for things like no-test health insurance and invisible masks, for while we often have the urge these days to scream, it is usually better to laugh. Anthony W. Rogers provides most of the vocals and plays most of the instruments, but does get some help from Blake Rogers, Joe Rogers, Aaron Liller, and Sean Liller, along with a couple of guests on certain tracks.

Side 1

The album opens with “Daddy Got Played,” which begins with a bit of a recording of Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign manager who was, like everyone else in the Trump world, caught in a lie. In the clip, he doesn’t deny lying, but rather claims, “I have no obligation to be honest with the media because they’re just as dishonest as anybody else.” This is a playful, yet dark, opening track about how people fall for certain things, and how ethics have disappeared from a certain segment of the population that laughably continues to claim some sort of moral high ground. Bryson Bush joins Anthony W. Rogers on this track on trumpet, percussion and backing vocals. That’s followed by “Substitute For Science,” a kind of strange, cool instrumental track written by Blake Rogers and Anthony Rogers.

Before One Day (A Journal), Anthony W. Rogers released an album titled Wrong. This was in 2015. A title track was written for that release, but ended up not being included. Now he has recorded a new version of the song for this release. It has something of a catchy pop-rock sound. “But me, I never thought they’d ever try to leave/No one else I’d seen venture to try/They just go from shit job to shit job/Lose confidence, ambition, and they want to get high.” We then get the first advertisement of the album, “Covid Beach,” calling kids to come down to a super spreader event. This track, which has a delightful surf sound, is a song for all those selfish bastards to whom spring break is more important than the health and safety of anyone they know or meet. Check out these lines: “Everybody’s always trying to tell you what to do/You can’t make me wear anything/Even if it’s killing you.” And there is a spoken word section: “Make your way on down to Covid Beach/Where food and rides for the week are fifty percent off/While masks are a hundred percent off at Covid Beach.” I am also reminded of that asshole Kirk Cameron and his fellow cult members who decided to hold their own super spreader events, gathering at parking lots and beaches in southern California and singing without wearing masks.

The fun continues with “Greaser,” one of only two tracks on the album not written or co-written by Anthony W. Rogers. It was written by Jon Johnson and Sean Liller. This is a glorious unabashed rock tune with kind of a raw sound and a certain sense of humor, along with some serious guitar. Bryson Bush and Pierce Miller join Anthony W. Rogers on this one. That’s followed by the second commercial, “3 For $12.99.” The sticker on the record’s shrink wrap lists the title as “Bleach Tabs 3 For $12.99,” so you know exactly what he’s singing about here. This one was written by Blake Rogers and Anthony W. Rogers. Oh, so many of our problems would have been solved if only all of Trump’s supporters had followed his suggestion to inject themselves with bleach.

Side 2

The second side opens with an oddly pretty and intriguing instrumental track composed by Blake Rogers titled “William Burns.” In 1907, William Burns, a black man, was lynched in Cumberland, Maryland. Racism continues to be a deadly problem in this country, as the current attacks on Asian citizens and Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd so clearly show. This track has a different sound from the rest of the album, helping it stand out. It is the second of the two tracks not written or co-written by Anthony W. Rogers. Then the “Invisible Mask” commercial comes on like a 1960s rock song, poking fun at dipshits who believed the Trump lie that the pandemic was a hoax. But for those who want to appear to be following Trump’s lead but still want to be safe, the invisible mask is available.  Hurry, order, the supply is limited/No one’s ever, ever going to know/It’s just like an empty box.”

“Wish Away” (or “Wish Myself Away,” as it listed on the back of the record jacket) will likely appeal to a lot of folks, as we deal with isolation and remember our lives before the pandemic. Things have changed, and they may not go back to the way they were before, so we have to come up with alternatives. We have to find better ways. This track becomes a cool jam, like something Neil Young might have recorded in the very late 1960s. That’s followed by another of the commercials, this one titled “NTHI,” standing for “No test health insurance.” This has a strange, humorously dark and ominous sound. “No test health insurance, the simplest way/You never have a diagnostic test, no way.” This one was written by Anthony W. Rogers, Blake Rogers and Aaron Liller.

“Listen” is one of my personal favorites. It is a song concerning the Black Lives Matter movement, and how some people claim or choose ignorance. Are those who say “All lives matter” deliberately missing the point? Well, this track has a very cool sound. That’s followed by the final advertisement of the album, “Karen For Hire.” I have to say I’m not a fan of using a person’s name to describe a type of person. That being said, this is a fun track. The record concludes with “Rain Cloud,” a surprisingly sweet and optimistic number. Well, we need this, don’t we?

Record Track List

Side 1

  1. Daddy Got Played
  2. Substitute For Science
  3. Wrong
  4. Covid Beach
  5. Greaser
  6. 3 For $12.99

Side 2

  1. William Burns
  2. Invisible Mask
  3. Wish Away
  4. NTHI
  5. Listen
  6. Karen For Hire
  7. Rain Cloud

Oblivious was released on January 1, 2021 on Wildflow Records, in a limited edition of only 250 copies. It is also available digitally, but it’s best to pick up a copy of the record.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Nicole Heartseeker & Mulo Francel: “Forever Young” (2021) CD Review

Classical music meets jazz in Forever Young, the wonderful new release from saxophonist Mulo Francel and pianist Nicole Heartseeker. The music takes us to a different age, one that perhaps never really existed, but one that music lovers will be thrilled to visit. On this album, the two musicians cover music by Bach, Handel and Schubert, or rather they cover themes from those composers, adding their own style and spin to them. The arrangements are by Mulo Francel, and both Francel and Heartseeker produced the album. As far as I can tell, this is only the duo’s second album together, following 2009’s Angel Affair, on which Nicole Heartseeker plays organ.

The album opens with a beautiful piece, “Delight Inside,” an improvisation on Giulio Caccini’s “Ave Maria.” Mulo Francel begins this track with a solo, his work having a lonesome, yet pretty sound. Then Nicole Heartseeker’s piano work has a wonderful tenderness and seems to express some sorrow. Her work has an introspective quality, while Mulo Francel seems to reach out.  The combination is captivating, an excellent start to the album. They then move to Bach’s “Sinfonia In F Major,” delivering a gentle, soothing, pleasant rendition. That is followed by “The Wide Point,” the musicians’ take on George Frideric Handel’s “Larghetto.” This is an interesting duet, with an expressive yearning from Mulo Francel.

“Our Serenade,” based on Franz Schubert’s “Ständchen,” begins with piano. This track starts in a rather mournful, dark place, a city at night, but soon grows and rises to become a passionate and even uplifting piece with its own tender and loving quality, particularly in the work on saxophone. This is one of my personal favorite tracks, and the touching theme will likely be familiar to most people, even those without much interest in classical and romantic music. That’s followed by “Mia Bella.” While most of the pieces on this album are based on the work of classical composers, this track is actually an original piece by Mulo Francel. And on this one he plays mandolin as well as saxophone, the sound conjuring images of a European café outside of time, a romantic setting. I love music that can transport us, as this piece does. This one ends up being another of my favorites.

“Let Me Weep” begins with some wonderful solo work on saxophone. It is nearly a minute before Nicole Heartseeker joins him on piano. This is an improvisation on another piece by Handel, the gorgeous and powerful “Lascia Ch’io Pianga,” this track featuring some stirring moments. Nicole Heartseeker and Mulo Francel then offer a beautiful rendition of Jules Massenet’s “Ouvre Tes Yeux Bleus.” There is something both magical and relaxing about the way they present this song, taking us to a dreamlike world where there is no danger or harm, only kindness. Listening to this piece, I feel my cares and worries evaporate. And speaking of dreamlike, that track is followed by a piece that bears the title “Dreamlike,” and is an improvisation on a composition by Schumann, “Träumerei,” which translates to “reverie” or “daydream.” And yes, there is that sense, that element to this one too, though in a way this one seems more grounded. It feels of another time, yes, but more a memory, though enhanced through fondness, than a dream.

“Enlarged Heart,” an improvisation of one of Vivaldi’s sonatas for cello, has a sweet sound, an optimistic and romantic vibe. If you need music to help you remove yourself, even momentarily, from the current troubles and pains, I encourage you to check out this album. “Enlarged Heart” is followed by “Walking Far,” a gorgeous improvisation on Marcello and Bach’s “Adagio” that has the engaging sense of heartache and passion you’d hope for. It is stunningly beautiful and moving. You might find yourself holding your breath at moments, as you let the piece take over. Also incredibly moving right from its start is “Lazy Days,” an improvisation on “Prelude Op. 11 No. 1,” composed by Anatoli Konstantinovich Ljadow. They follow that with a second composition from Jules Massenet, “Elégie,” this one having quite a different vibe from the other piece, with a darker, more mournful sound. Then their rendition of “‘A Vucchella” is playful, light and totally enjoyable. This one had me smiling within just a few seconds. It is a delight, the two musicians engaging in a dance that seems to lift both them and us right off the ground, like angels who don’t take heaven too seriously.

While the album began with an improvisation on Caccini’s “Ave Maria,” Nicole Heartseeker and Mulo Francel also deliver a wonderful rendition of Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla’s “Ave Maria.” They then return to the work of Handel with a moving and beautiful version of “Minuet In G Minor,” another of the disc’s highlights. That’s followed by an excellent rendition of Gabriel Fauré’s “Après Un Rêve,” returning to the theme of dreams and daydreams. And who doesn’t wish to enter into a world of dreams in these days when reality is so hazardous, particularly a romantic dream?  This track has a more urgent feel to it, rather than that sense of lightly, lovingly drifting through a hazy realm. This excellent album concludes with a second piece composed by Astor Piazzolla, “Oblivion,” a beautiful piece tinged with the sadness of forgetting.

CD Track List

  1. Delight Inside
  2. Sinfonia In F Major
  3. The Wide Point
  4. Our Serenade
  5. Mia Bella
  6. Let Me Weep
  7. Ouvre Tes Yeux Bleus
  8. Dreamlike
  9. Enlarged Heart
  10. Walking Far
  11. Lazy Days
  12. Elégie
  13. ‘A Vucchella
  14. Ave Maria
  15. Minuet In G Minor
  16. Après Un Rêve
  17. Oblivion

Forever Young was released on March 26, 2021.