Monday, March 27, 2017

Bandzilla: “Bandzilla Rises!!!” (2016) CD Review

If you’re in need of some funky fun with plenty of horn action and positive vibes, then you should check out the latest CD from Bandzilla, Bandzilla Rises!!! Things are completely fucked out there, and even though every day I expect to learn that Donald Trump has been arrested, impeached or buried, so far he’s managed to maintain his position despite all sorts of brazen criminal behavior. But thanks to this menace, we’ve been able to easily and clearly identify the other monsters in our midst. (There were more than I had guessed!) Well, as Paola Vera sings in “Welcome To My World,” “Those guys on the Titanic had it easy/They only had to deal with the sea.” Yes, things are tough out there these days. But Bandzilla will help, no question about it. Bandzilla is a funky jazz orchestra led by guitarist and composer Richard Niles, and this album offers plenty of different avenues leading away from the ugliness of our country. The group features several singers (including Leo Sayer), as well as some great horn players, and several of these tracks have something of a theatrical element. All tracks were written and arranged by Richard Niles.

Bandzilla Rises!!! opens with the title track, a pointless and goofy spoken word introduction, delivered with a bizarre faux seriousness, like some magician of music. “Bandzilla is both music’s monster and its funky companion. He is both the original hipster and the familiar cuddly toy.” Just skip this. Plus, I personally hate when people use more than one exclamation point (or, even worse, multiple question marks, or that dreaded combination of question mark and exclamation point – ugh). Anyway, it’s less than a minute long, and then things get funky with “Live As One,” which features Kim Chandler sharing vocal duties with Richard Niles. Nigel Hitchcock delivers some wonderful stuff on alto saxophone, and this track also features a good bass line. This one is full of bright, positive vibes. “I am waiting for the day/When we all can live as one.” Doesn’t look like it’s going to happen anytime soon, but music certainly helps.

That’s followed by “You Can’t Get There From Here,” one of my favorite tracks. “You’re an important man/With all your nasty crimes/And while you’re running the country/You’re in the New York Times/But who are you now?” Oh yes, I love this. Obviously, it seems to be about Donald Trump, but from what I can gather, it’s not about him specifically, but about those of his ilk (it was written in 2015). Still, this song is really working for me right about now. Plus, it boasts some great work on horns. I’m totally digging this song. Randy Brecker both sings and provides that excellent lead on trumpet on this one. Kim Chandler also sings on this track. And then on “L.A. Existential,” one thing that really stands out is Richard Niles’ work on guitar. This tune goes in some unexpected and delightful directions. It is a mix of big band jazz sounds and funk, and with the heart of a friendly maniac from on high who passes out magic lollipops and sprinkles pixie dust on the hills in order to grow a menagerie of fanciful creatures. And there is a cool drum solo by Ian Palmer. And who had thought you would want to dance to someone singing “I can’t take this angst, mixed with dark despair”? Yes, this track is another of the disc’s highlights.

“This World Is Mine” has a bluesy edge, particularly in the guitar work. Leo Sayer (yes, “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing”) and Kim Chandler share lead vocal duties on this one. “I don’t swallow one damn thing on the 9 o’clock news” is a line that I would have appreciated even more last year. But now, with Trump’s constant claims of “fake news,” I find myself siding with the news organizations. It’s a case of appreciating anything that Donald Trump despises or disparages. But before this, I had lost faith in most news (particularly television news), because investigative journalism seemed to have become a thing of the past, and broadcasters were simply repeating whatever nonsense they were told. But I’m hoping, what with the current horror, that investigative journalism is on the rise once again. We certainly need it. As Leo Sayer sings in this song, “I can’t think of one politician that I’d endorse.” But what I really love about this song is that trombone lead by Mark Nightingale partway through. I also seriously dig that section with piano (that’s Steve Hamilton on piano).

There are a couple of instrumental tracks on this disc. “Compassion’s In Fashion” has something of a smooth jazz vibe, and then partway through, it gets a bit funkier. This track features some nice work by Nigel Hitchcock on alto saxophone. “The 5th Elephant” (composed just a few years after the release of the movie The Fifth Element) is the other instrumental track. The overall vibe is sort of in the smooth jazz realm too, but it has some delightful touches to keep things interesting.

“The Alligator From West 15th” begins like a big sexy number, and I expect some voluptuous chick with a feather boa to step into my room. And yeah, I’m a bit disappointed that one doesn’t. But no worries, because then the female vocals come in, and that’s just as good. That’s Julia Zuzanna Sokolowska on the female lead vocals (Richard Niles provides the male lead vocals). There is certainly something theatrical about this number, and it does get a bit silly at moments. The lyrics about Twitter and Myspace throw me a bit, as this song seems to come from another time, an earlier time. But this is a totally enjoyable tune, and I absolutely love the horns. Mark Nightingale is on trombone, and John Thirkell is on trumpet. That’s followed by another delightful number, “Love Don’t Mean A Thing,” which also has something of a theatrical vibe and a sense of humor, and features Lamont Dozier Jr. on vocals.

“Tip For A Toreador” is an interesting track, particularly in the vocals. I love the opening, as well as that strange vocal section halfway through. Wonderful. Bandzilla then concludes the album with “Why Is This World So Strange?” Of course, there’s just no answer to that question. “It isn’t just that everything seems really so deliberately wrong/It isn’t just that every time I try to write a letter it comes out like a song/But no one seems to care/Ants devour anteaters who’ve fallen asleep.”

CD Track List
  1. Bandzilla Rises!!!
  2. Live As One
  3. You Can’t Get There From Here
  4. L.A. Existential
  5. This World Is Mine
  6. Compassion’s In Fashion
  7. Stone Jungle
  8. The 5th Elephant
  9. The Alligator From West 15th
  10. Love Don’t Mean A Thing
  11. Welcome To My World
  12. Talkin’ In Whispers
  13. Tip For A Toreador
  14. Why Is This World So Strange?
Bandzilla Rises!!! was released on November 18, 2016.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Leonard Cohen: “Upon A Smokey Evening” (2017) CD Review

There have been several unofficial Leonard Cohen releases lately, all of them based on radio broadcasts of concerts (as well as a few interviews). The newest, Upon A Smokey Evening, is a two-disc set containing most of the concert that Leonard Cohen performed in Germany on December 3, 1979. It’s missing the first song of the show, as well as a couple of songs from the end of the performance. I’m not sure why the full show isn’t included, as each disc is approximately only fifty-six minutes, and so the three missing songs could easily fit. This concert was part of the Smokey Life tour, which supported Leonard Cohen’s 1979 release, Recent Songs, and many of the musicians from that album performed on the tour. The band includes Roscoe Beck on bass, Mitch Watkins on guitar, Bill Ginn on keys, Paul Ostermayer on saxophone and flute, Steve Meador on drums, Raffi Hakopian on violin, John Bilezikjian on oud, Jennifer Warnes on backing vocals and Sharon Robinson on backing vocals. By the way, this tour did yield an official live release titled Field Commander Cohen, which came out in 2001.

The first disc contains the first set, as well as the first few songs of the second set. As I mentioned, the first song is actually missing. And that’s a shame, as it’s an early instrumental rendition of “Heart With No Companion,” one of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs. The studio version of this song would not be released for another five years, on Various Positions, my personal favorite Leonard Cohen record. I hope one of the early versions of this songs will find its way onto a future release. Anyway, this release opens with “Bird On The Wire.” The sound isn’t perfect on this CD; there is a hiss throughout, making me wish I could press the old Dolby Noise Reduction button. But the music, of course, is great. In this version of “Bird On The Wire,” Leonard Cohen sings, “Like a monk bending over the book.”

He delivers a brief spoken introduction as he starts “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye”: “This is a song from an old brown hotel room.” This is an interesting rendition, as the keyboard is often the prominent instrument. The violin is beautiful. And then “Who By Fire” begins with a beautiful instrumental section. This is an unusual version of “Who By Fire,” with odd electronic sounds at moments. “Passing Through” begins slowly and sweetly with harmonica, and then some gorgeous vocals. It then picks up in pace, taking on a country feel. They slow it down it again at the end.

The first song of the night from Recent Songs is “The Window,” which begins with some pretty work on violin. This is a really nice rendition. (I just wish the folks behind this release could have eliminated the hiss.) And then I love the extended instrumental beginning to “Lover Lover Lover.” Though the song feels a bit disjointed in those moments when the electric guitar comes in, trying to take it in more of a country direction. Leonard Cohen concludes the first set with an excellent rendition of “So Long, Marianne,” his vocals sounding so damn good. Leonard sings, “Did I ever say that I was brave?” rather than “I never said that I was brave.” This is one of the highlights of the first disc.

The first disc contains the beginning of the second set. He introduces “The Stranger Song” by saying: “This is a very curious and important moment for the band and myself. It’s our last night in Germany, and we are here in some kind of very center of a series of Chinese boxes in Germany, the strongest nation of the west.” He follows that with “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” for which he also gives an introduction. “They say the era is over. They say these are now the times of the conservative, the stable, the order. Perhaps that’s true. She certainly stood for something that was beyond order, and beyond chaos. Beyond the radical, and beyond the conservative, which is what every great singer embodies. Something that is not an argument and not a philosophy.” And he mentions Janis Joplin by name. The first disc then concludes with “A Singer Must Die,” which is another highlight. The disc ends abruptly before the audience can applaud.

The second disc begins with “The Partisan.” Interestingly, particularly as this concert took place in Germany, Leonard sings, “Then the Germans came” rather than “Then the soldiers came.” He follows that with a version of “Famous Blue Raincoat” in which the keyboard is prominent. I don’t think I’ve heard another version quite like this one. He gives an unusual delivery of “She sends her regards.” And then I like the saxophone that follows that line. After a pretty good version of “There Is A War,” Leonard Cohen plays a couple more beautiful tracks from Recent Songs – “The Gypsy’s Wife” and “The Guests.” I always love the female backing vocals on “The Guests.” He follows those with a rendition of “Suzanne,” and judging by the amount of applause, that might be the final song of the second set. I’m not sure.

“Memories” is a song I never got to see Leonard Cohen perform, much to my dismay. His introduction to it here is hilarious: “The next song is one of my least significant songs. In it, I have placed, as though it were data in a tiny time capsule which is fired at a distant star and actually dissolves in the colder reaches of space far before its ultimate destination. In this tiny song I have placed all the irrelevant material concerning my extremely dismal adolescence.” I love the humor of this song. “I walked up to the tallest and the blondest girl/I said, look, you don’t know me now, but very soon you will/So won’t you let me see/Won’t you let me see/Won’t you let me see your naked body?” This song is so much fun, and I dig the saxophone. The applause at the end makes it almost certain that the next song, “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong,” is an encore. That’s followed by a seriously fun country rendition of “Tonight Will Be Fine,” another of the highlights. This song makes me ridiculously happy.

We are then missing “Sisters Of Mercy” for some reason, and the disc concludes with “I Tried To Leave You,” with each member of the band getting a chance to shine. In this rendition, Leonard Cohen sings, “The years go by, don’t they/You lose your precious pride, don’t you.” The final song of the concert, an encore performance of “Bird On The Wire,” is cut.

CD Track List

Disc 1
  1. Bird On The Wire
  2. Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye
  3. Who By Fire
  4. Passing Through
  5. The Window
  6. Lover Lover Lover
  7. So Long, Marianne
  8. The Stranger Song
  9. Chelsea Hotel No. 2
  10. A Singer Must Die
Disc 2
  1. The Partisan
  2. Famous Blue Raincoat
  3. There Is A War
  4. The Gypsy’s Wife
  5. The Guests
  6. Suzanne
  7. Memories
  8. One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong
  9. Tonight Will Be Fine
  10. I Tried To Leave You
Upon A Smokey Evening was released on March 10, 2017 through Golden Rain.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Mark Duda: “Month Of Sundays” (2017) CD Review

I wasn’t all that familiar with Mark Duda’s work before I popped in his new CD, Month Of Sundays. I hadn’t heard his bands The Handful or Mad City Rockers, because I don’t listen to a whole lot of hard rock. And so I wasn’t sure what to expect. But it did not take long before I was drawn in, and then interested, and then nearly gleeful at the music I heard, almost giddy. Seriously, this CD came as a wonderful surprise. It’s rock, absolutely, no question. But it’s rock with some style (but not bullshit) and with some care taken in crafting its lyrics. And it reminded me of some of the best rock of the 1970s. I am glad to know albums like this one are still being made. All six songs on this EP were written or co-written by Mark Duda. He is joined by Handful  band mate Jimi K. Bones on guitar, percussion and backing vocals; Thommy Price (from Joan Jett And The Blackhearts, Scandal) on drums; and Kenny Aaronson (from Stories) on bass. There are also a few guest musicians on certain tracks.

Mark Duda kicks off Month Of Sundays with its title track, which first sounds fairly straightforward. But then the chorus reminds me of some classic Meat Loaf tunes, the vocals carrying that kind of strength and confidence and exuberance, and that’s when I start getting really interested. And by the end of this track, I am totally on board. “You don’t want to hold me down/You just want your hooks in me.” I’m hooked. That’s followed by “Murder On Delancey,” which has a good, straightforward rock sound, and some surprising lyrics. “I am crying/I cannot save her/I am screaming/Bloody murder.” Joining Mark Duda on this track are Cheetah Chrome (from The Dead Boys) on guitar and Bobby Rondinelli (from The Handful) on drums.

Probably my favorite track on this CD is “Standoff Love,” which opens like some classic rock ‘n’ roll tune, complete with saxophone. That’s Arno Hecht on sax, whom you likely know as a member of The Uptown Horns, a group that has toured with The Rolling Stones. And he’s fantastic on this track. Again Mark Duda reminds me a bit of Meat Loaf here, with that obvious love of pure rock and roll in his blood, mixed with unusual lyrical content, creating a captivating combination that is also a whole lot of fun. “Cursing my name under your last breath/Wondering how in the hell you fell in my trap/It’s a death wish, honey, hanging around too long.” Those are the song’s opening lines. And check out these lyrics: “I’m just a wanted man/I know I wasn’t there/Please see my point of view/It’s not that I didn’t care.” I love this song. It was written by Jimi K. Bones and Mark Duda.

Then “Worse For Wear” is a slower rock tune. “I couldn’t help myself/And you couldn’t care less.” I also like these lines: “Lie to me, lie to me/Lie to me, lie to me/Take all the worst out of what you think you see/And hold it over my head.” That’s followed by “Connection,” which has a great 1970s rock feel, complete with cowbell. This song takes me right back to my youth, but again, the lyrics are good. “She’s got friends on the jury, friends on the jury/Whoa, she used to be my mainstay/Hey, hey, hey, hey/Well, she used to be my connection.” This track also features some fun electric guitar work. The EP then concludes with “Subway Song,” which opens with a decidedly lo-fi feel, almost like a folk song performed in the subway station. After thirty seconds or so it then kicks in and becomes a fun rock tune. “I saw you on the subway/And I decided I would take it at six o’clock nearly every day now/Baby, when are we going to make it?” I love the humor of this.

CD Track List
  1. Month Of Sundays
  2. Murder On Delancey
  3. Standoff Love
  4. Worse For Wear
  5. Connection
  6. Subway Song
Month Of Sundays is scheduled to be released on April 14, 2017 through True Rock.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Ozomatli: “Non-Stop: Mexico To Jamaica” (2017) CD Review

I moved to Los Angeles in the late 1990s, and Ozomatli was one of the first L.A. bands that people turned me on to. It seemed that everyone I met who knew music was a fan of this band. And it didn’t take long to find out why. Their music has a joyful energy, with lots of positive vibes to get you dancing, but the band also certainly has something to say. Later, I used to sometimes watch the Gabriel Iglesias show just to catch the Ozomatli’s numbers, but of course there was never enough of the band on that show. Anyway, they’re putting out a new CD, Non-Stop: Mexico To Jamaica, which is an album of covers of Mexican songs, done with a reggae feel. The group is joined by several guests, including Herb Alpert and Gaby Moreno. As you expect of any release from this band, the disc contains plenty of good, positive vibes. This music seems potent enough to defeat the racist, fascist Trump regime, so if you live in D.C., turn this one up!

Ozomatli kicks off the CD with “Eres,” a song by Café Tacuba, and right away that reggae beat gets me dancing. The plan is to drink and dance until The Horror In The White House is over. Joining the band on this track is Sabrina Luna on cello, an instrument I am always happy to hear. They follow that with a rendition of Selena’s “Como La Flor,” this track featuring an easy-going groove mixing reggae and Latin elements. Apart from watching the movie Selena, I never really got into her, but this song makes me want to check out more of her material. There are more good grooves on their version of Maná’s “Oye Mi Amor,” a song that was released as a single back in 1992.

The band delivers a really cool, interesting rendition of “Besame Mucho,” a song written and originally recorded by Consuelo Velazquez. I think the first version I heard was by The Beatles. In the 1980s I purchased a cassette by the Silver Beatles, titled Volume 1, which contained early stuff, including their version of this song. This rendition by Ozomatli is obviously quite a bit different, and includes a rap. What’s also exciting about this rendition is that Herb Alpert joins them on trumpet. That’s followed by one of my favorite tracks, a seriously fun rendition of “Noa Noa,” a song by Juan Gabriel (one of the many singers and musicians we lost in 2016). Juanes joins the band on guitar on this track. This song, particularly the chorus, has such a happy feel. I love this tune. Now I need to see the movie El Noa Noa. I just added the DVD to my wish list.

Ozomatli gives us a unique take on “La Bamba.” Of course, I’m mostly familiar with the Ritchie Valens rendition, and it seems most people who have covered it since have taken his lead, have used his version for inspiration (with some exceptions, of course). This version is quite a departure, and is fun to dance to. It features Kyle McDonald from Slightly Stoopid on lead vocals. That’s followed by another of my personal favorites, “Solamente Una Vez,” written by Agustin Lara. This one pulled me in immediately with its slower, prettier vibe. This one too features a guest vocalist, Gaby Moreno. I love her work here. Also joining the band on this track is Emile Porée on guitar.

The band also delivers a totally enjoyable rendition of “De Paisano A Paisano,” a song by Los Tigres Del Norte. This is another track that reminds me the world is a good place. It’s followed by a very good rendition of “Evil Ways.” The album concludes with “Come And Get Your Love,” which was a hit by the band Redbone in 1974. (Though the band is from California, they have Mexican heritage.) Ozomatli’s version has a fun, kind of sweet groove.

CD Track List
  1. Eres
  2. Como La Flor
  3. Oye Mi Amor
  4. Besame Mucho
  5. Noa Noa
  6. La Bamba
  7. Solamente Una Vez
  8. Andar Conmigo
  9. De Paisano A Paisano
  10. Evil Ways
  11. Tragos Amargos
  12. Volver Volver
  13. Land Of 1000 Dances
  14. Come And Get Your Love
Non-Stop: Mexico To Jamaica is scheduled to be released on May 5, 2017 on Cleopatra Records.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Randall Lamb: “Songs Of Freedom” (2017) CD Review

Fur Dixon & Steve Werner introduced me to a lot of excellent singers, songwriters and musicians. They used to throw these great back yard parties that would become jam sessions around a fire, with many of L.A.’s best folk and country players joining in. They also had some wonderful musicians join them at their shows. One songwriter that really stands out among that phenomenal group is Randall Lamb. Fur & Steve covered his “I Like The Way That I Feel” (also known as “I Like How I Feel”) in concert, and included it on their Songs Of The Open Road Volume One CD. Hearing that song was what first got me interested in the music of Randall Lamb. If you appreciate good songwriting and an honest delivery, you should definitely check this guy out. He has a new CD available titled Songs Of Freedom, which features all original material, showcasing his songwriting talent.

Randall Lamb opens the new album with “The Walking, Rambling Blues,” which features some nice touches on harmonica at the beginning. This is a good tune tackling one of those perennial folk topics – being on the road. “When I woke up this morning, I put on my shoes/I headed out the door, I had the rambling blues/I had the rambling blues, I had the rambling blues/I didn’t know what to do but keep on walking/Because I had the walking, rambling blues.” His vocals have a bit of that rough and weary quality that makes this song feel genuine, like he stopped long enough to record the song and then was out the door again. Also, he draws us in by directly addressing us with lines like “I’m sure you’ve had ’em too/They can get to you.” And whether we’ve had the walking, rambling blues or not, we certainly want to say we’ve had them, to join in. You know? Because singing them makes them sound not all that bad.

He follows that with “My First Guitar,” which he delivers with a straightforward spoken word style. He speaks of it with fondness and humor: “It was a sweet little thing/I couldn’t play or sing.” It isn’t just about that first guitar, but about how one thing leads to the next on whatever your chosen path is. And here we all are today. How is everyone doing? Check out these lines: “And somehow here I am today/Trying to use the things/I picked up along the way/Who knows these things/Good or bad from the past/Could be the child of your future/With a long shadow cast.” This song also has references to some other musicians, like Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams.

“Songs Of Freedom,” the album’s title track, is one of my favorites. The first time I put this CD on, certain lines stood out for me, such as these lines from this song: “There’s the freedom that money can buy/There’s the freedom that money denies.” Perhaps it’s partly due to my mood these days, but this song in particular speaks to me. “Freedom blowing on the wind/Round the world and back again/You build a wall, it still gets in.” Yes.

That’s followed by another of my favorites, “So Many Different Shades Of Blue.” There is something beautiful about this song – that sad kind of beauty that affects us on some strange level that maybe we’re only aware of when we listen to music like this. It opens with these lines: “Things I do/Used to do/And don’t do/Anymore/Who I am/Who I was/But I’m not/Who I was before.” But the following lines are what get me every time: “I think about it/Now and then/Like writing a letter/That you never send/You know it by heart/From end to end/Might send it one day/But you don’t know when.” Something about those lines nearly brings me to tears.

“Too Big To Fail” is a fun, quirky and oh-so-pertinent song about the order of things around here. Check out these lines: “We own God/We own the news/We own most of everything/So go ahead and choose/Money talks and we can’t lose.” How’s about that for getting right to heart of the matter? “We own the future/We own the past/We own the oil/We own the gas.” I love that this song manages to be both fun and depressing simultaneously. Randall Lamb concludes this CD with another topical song, “Right Wing Jesus.” It’s an excellent song, though after speaking with some folks on the right, I doubt any of them would understand it. They might think Randall was in complete agreement with them. “He protects the bankers, the corporate and the greedy/He’s had enough of the poor and needy/He’s anti-union and he’s anti-gay/He’s a card-carrying member of the NRA/Right wing Jesus, right wing Jesus/Right wing Jesus/Right on.”

CD Track List
  1. The Walking, Rambling Blues
  2. My First Guitar
  3. Songs Of Freedom
  4. So Many Different Shades Of Blue
  5. Night Time On The Long Shadow Trail
  6. Just Fins And Chrome
  7. Too Big To Fail
  8. Not Riding In A Hearse
  9. A Painting For A Song
  10. Right Wing Jesus
Songs Of Freedom was released in January 2017.

Danny Barnes: “Stove Up” (2017) CD Review

For those of us in need of respite from the criminal buffoonery of our so-called leaders, Danny Barnes offers Stove Up, a new CD full of music from a better time and place. Is there a brighter, happier sound than a banjo? I don’t know. On Stove Up, this talented banjo player (whom you probably know from Bad Livers, if not from his solo career) pays tribute to another great banjo player, Don Stover. Here he delivers renditions of several songs from Stover’s 1972 album Things In Life, as well as some other covers and also some original material. Most of the tracks on this CD are bluegrass instrumentals, but there are a few tracks with vocals. Joining Danny Barnes on this release are Jason Carter on fiddle, Mike Bub on bass, Chris Henry on mandolin and national tenor guitar, and Nick Forster on guitar and mandolin. So maybe that better place still exists, in a parallel universe, and this CD is your ticket to pass over.

Danny Barnes opens the album with an original composition titled “Isotope 709,” a bright, fun instrumental number. And right away the darkness begins to lift, like the government is being gently swept aside by the rising notes of the music. The place of this music is not a place for lies and hatred; those just can’t exist here. You’ll know what I mean when you pop in this disc. This tune has a delightful ending, and is followed by “Black Diamond,” an instrumental written by Don Stover and included on Things In Life. This is one of my favorite tracks. It makes me feel like the world is a good and happy place, and maybe it is. It certainly is while this song is playing. There is something friendly and warm about this track, something inviting and disarming and fun.

“Factory Girl” is the first of the album’s tracks to feature Danny Barnes’ vocals. It’s a song written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and originally included on The Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet album. It totally works as a bluegrass song, with its playful lyrics. “Waiting for a girl and her knees are much too fat/Waiting for a girl, she wears scarves instead of hats.” That’s followed by another of my favorites, an instrumental rendition of “John Hardy.” I’ve heard a whole lot of versions of this song over the years, and this one with just banjo and fiddle stands up with the best of them. Danny Barnes also presents “Bill Cheatum” as a banjo and fiddle duet.

Danny Barnes’ rendition of “Rockwood Deer Chase” begins with a bit of noodling, like warming up for the wild number that soon emerges. This instrumental was written by Don Stover, and was included on Things In Life. And oh man, Danny Barnes’ work on banjo is fantastic. Can we somehow broadcast this track to the entire nation? I feel like it could very well be the antidote to what ails the country. That’s followed by a fun version of Eddie Shelton’s “Blue Ridge Express.” There is such a joy to the playing, and it transfers so easily to the listener. And for that, I am thankful. We all could use a bit of help these days in raising our spirits. “Steel Guitar Rag” will work to that end too, with its cool, relaxed back porch vibe. Halfway through, it goes in a different direction. This is yet another of my favorites.

“Charlie” is the second of the album’s tracks to feature Danny Barnes’ vocals. This playful song about a man of deficient character was written by Danny Barnes. “He wound up sitting in a federal can/Out in ten years and do it all again/Charlie was a no-good man/He woke up doing the worst that he can/Charlie was a no-good man.” The album’s final vocal track is “Get It While You Can,” also written by Danny Barnes, and it is another of the CD’s highlights. Interestingly, on this tune Danny plays 12-string guitar. I love the cool vocal line of this song. “I got a pickup truck on blocks/And my landlord changed the lock/I got my hat in hand/Standing in the welfare line/You best get it while you can.” This tune is great fun, with some excellent playing.

“Ole Liza Jane” is not one that Don Stover wrote, but still one that he included on Things In Life. This fast-paced instrumental tune makes me happy. It’s followed by “Paddy On The Turnpike,” another song that Don Stover recorded but did not write. On the original vinyl issue of that record, it was listed as “Patty On The Turnpike,” but on the CD it’s “Paddy On The Turnpike.” Sort of like when people mistakenly write “St. Patty’s Day.” Speaking of which, happy St. Paddy’s Day, everyone.

CD Track List
  1. Isotope 709
  2. Black Diamond
  3. Factory Girl
  4. John Hardy
  5. Rockwood Deer Chase
  6. Blue Ridge Express
  7. Steel Guitar Rag
  8. Charlie
  9. Bill Cheatum
  10. Eight More Miles To Louisville
  11. Farewell Blues
  12. Fireball
  13. Get It While You Can
  14. Flint Hill Special
  15. Ole Liza Jane
  16. Paddy On The Turnpike
  17. Foggy Mountain Special 
Stove Up was released on March 3, 2017 on Wendell Records. It was made available as a download on November 30, 2016.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Jenny Scheinman: “Here On Earth” (2017) CD Review

Jenny Scheinman’s new album, Here On Earth, is precisely what I needed today to get my mind off the political insanity of our nation, at least for a while. The tracks on this CD are excellent instrumental tunes led by Jenny Scheinman’s fiddle, the songs being of several different styles and emotional content. All of the tunes are originals, written by Jenny Scheinman, many of them composed for Kannapolis: A Moving Portrait, a collaboration with filmmaker Finn Taylor. Jenny Scheinman has played with a lot of talented artists, including Ani Difranco, Lucinda Williams and Bill Frisell, and Frisell is one of several accomplished musicians joining her on this CD. In addition to Bill Frisell on guitar, joining her on this release are Danny Barnes (from Bad Livers) on banjo, guitar and tuba; Robbie Fulks on guitar and banjo; and Robbie Gjersoe on resonator guitar. What a pleasure it is to listen to this music. These songs create, or evoke, a better, more honest and true America than the one being crafted by the creatures currently inhabiting the White House. And this music will be with us long after those monsters have been defeated.

Jenny Scheinman gets things off to a good start with a short tune titled “A Kid Named Lilly,” which features Robbie Fulks. It has a familiar feel, which immediately pulls me in and has me smiling. That’s followed by “Rowan,” which has a sweet, optimistic, warm vibe. Pull your loved one close and give him or her a kiss while this plays. Then lift each other up for a brief dance on the wooden floor boards during “Hive Of Bees,” which has a delightfully timeless feel.

Things turn darker, more serious, and a bit more introspective with “Pent Up Polly.” It feel like things might lead to a duel or knife fight on an otherwise deserted dirt road, as the combatants ready themselves, circle each other, size up the matter. Or perhaps they’ll just endlessly prepare, and no harm will come to anyone. Jenny Scheinman switches gears again with “Delinquent Bill,” a lighter, loose, relaxed, friendly and kind of catchy number. That guitar part has me tapping my toes and nodding my head in time. That’s followed by “Up On Shenanigan,” which has a traditional feel to it, and features some really good work on guitar. And the next track is the one with the title that makes me laugh each time I see it: “Bark, George!”

“Broken Pipeline” is one of the most interesting tracks, and is one that features Robbie Gjersoe on resonator guitar (“Deck Saw, Porch Saw” is the other). There is something of an anxious quality to this one, with its rhythm and repeated phrases, like something is about to happen and there’s no stopping it. This one builds up nicely, and I find myself completely engaged and immersed in it.  “Annabelle And The Bird” is another favorite of mine. It is pretty and has that wonderful timeless quality. Some of these tracks seem to have strong narratives without a single lyric, and this is one of them. At the end of this song, I feel I’ve been told an old, yet relevant tale. “Deck Saw, Porch Saw” is pure fun. Grab a partner and dance away your cares.

CD Track List
  1. A Kid Named Lily
  2. Rowan
  3. Hive Of Bees
  4. Pent Up Polly
  5. Delinquent Bill
  6. Up On Shenanigan
  7. Bark, George!
  8. Esme
  9. The Road To Manila
  10. Broken Pipeline
  11. Don’t Knock Out The Old Dog’s Teeth
  12. Bug In The Honey
  13. Annabelle And The Bird
  14. Deck Saw, Porch Saw
  15. In The Honey 
Here On Earth is scheduled to be released on April 28, 2017 through Royal Potato Family. (It was made available to download on March 3rd.)

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Rascals: “The Complete Singles A’s & B’s” (2017) CD Review

When I was a teenager, I felt I’d been born at the wrong time, that I would have thrived in the late sixties, when the music was great, and politics were exciting, and people seemed to come together to battle the giant monsters. People were involved, and change seemed not only possible but inevitable. Now here we are, in a time when there are battles to be fought, monsters to be defeated, and it’s just totally frightening and depressing. We are living in strange and scary times, with an unstable menace occupying the White House, and I’m not sure what change is possible. So maybe I wouldn’t have enjoyed everything about the 1960s after all. But I still love the music.

Today I turned to The Rascals for relief from the present. The Complete Singles A’s & B’s, the new two-disc compilation, includes nearly fifty tracks of good 1960s and early 1970s rock and roll, from the band’s early days as The Young Rascals, right up to their final single, “Jungle Walk.” All the hits that you know and love are here, including “Good Lovin’,” “Groovin’,” “How Can I Be Sure,” “A Beautiful Morning” and “People Got To Be Free.” And, as the compilation’s title promises, all those lesser known B sides are also included – songs you may not have heard, but will likely enjoy. This two-disc set includes liner notes by Ed Osborne, based on interviews with band members.

The songs are presented in order of their release dates, and so the first disc kicks off with “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore,” the band’s first single, which was recorded in November of 1965. It was a minor hit and was also included on The Young Rascals’ self-titled album. It’s a tune about being in love with a girl who isn’t faithful, and telling her she’s got to make a decision. I actually prefer the single’s flip side, a cover of “Slow Down,” which is a fun rock and roll number written by Larry Williams (and also covered by The Beatles). The band’s second single turned out to be one of its biggest hits, “Good Lovin’.” The song had been recorded by a couple of artists before The Young Rascals, but it is the Rascals’ version that everyone knows. And for good reason. This is an excellent, energetic rendition. It’s been used in several films and television shows over the years. The two that stand out for me are The Big Chill (one of my favorite films) and a particularly good episode of Moonlighting. The scene in The Big Chill makes good use of that pause in the song.

The band’s third single, “You Better Run,” is the first written by band members Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati. It obviously wasn’t as big a hit as “Good Lovin’,” but it did reach #20 on the Billboard chart, and it’s a cool song – one of my favorites, actually. “Whatcha trying to do to my soul?/Everything I had was yours/And now I’m closing all the doors/Whatcha trying to do to my soul/You better run, you better hide.” “Come On Up,” written by Felix Cavaliere, is a fun song to get you dancing. It’s not all that interesting, but it doesn’t need to be.

“I’ve Been Lonely Too Long” always sounded to me like a song that might have originally been recorded by a Motown vocal group. It has that sort of feel. But no, it was written by Cavaliere and Brigati and it reached #16 on the Billboard chart. It was followed by the band’s second number one hit, “Groovin’,” a relaxed and kind of sweet tune. I had this song on a compilation cassette during my teen years. I think it was titled Summer Of Love. I got it in 1987. “Groovin’” was also written by Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati. This compilation also includes the Spanish and Italian versions of this song, which were released together as a single but not included on the LP. I had never heard these tracks before, and they are certainly among this release’s treats.

“How Can I Be Sure” was another big hit for the band, reaching #4 on the Billboard chart. This one has quite a different feel from their earlier releases, with an interesting European sound, and is another of my personal favorites. A few years later, Dusty Springfield had a minor hit with her version of this song. The flip side, “I’m So Happy Now,” is also really good. I particularly dig that guitar part. This one was written by Gene Cornish, who also sings lead. It has a very positive vibe. “It’s A Beautiful Morning” also has a positive vibe. I think I had this one on a 1960s compilation cassette too, but I can’t recall the name of that one. It might seem a bit cheesy, but I still like this song. Oh, I remember now, the compilation was titled Mellow Sixties. “People Got To Be Free” is another of the band’s number one hits, and this song holds up really well. I love this song, and it seems as relevant today as the day it was released in 1968. “No two ways about it, people have to be free.” The band’s following single, “Ray Of Hope,” is also one that carries a positive message. And again, these lyrics are needed today: “I know a lot of people who think like me/That this world could be a place that's filled with harmony/First there's a lot of things we've got to rearrange/First put an end to hate and lies/So peace can come and truth shall reign/As long as there is a ray of hope.”

The next single, “Heaven,” actually includes a little nod to “Ray Of Hope” in the line, “There just don’t seem to be a ray of hope around.” Both songs were included on the LP Freedom Suite, “Ray Of Hope” being the last song on side 1, “Heaven” the last song on side 2. “Heaven” is another of the band’s strong songs, though it only reached #39 on the Billboard chart. It was written by Felix Cavaliere, as was its flip side, “Baby I’m Blue.” “See” is kind of a strange song, and that repeated guitar line reminds me a bit of The Monkees’ “Last Train To Clarksville.” “Secret mirror photographs/Shining in your eyes/I'm married to the universe/My brother is the sky.” It goes in some interesting directions, and I actually really like this one. Its flip side, “Away Away,” was written by Gene Cornish, and has a good, kind of heavy groove, and some cool stuff on keys. Then “Carry Me Back” begins with some delightful work on keys, and is another really good song.

With “Glory Glory,” The Rascals dip into gospel. This song reached only #58 on the Billboard chart, but it’s a fun and positive tune, written by Felix Cavaliere, and features some wonderful backing vocals. Its flip side, “You Don’t Know,” was written by Gene Cornish and has something of a country rock vibe. The next single, “Right On,” is a somewhat funky tune that I like, but it failed to make it to the Billboard Hot 100. “Almost Home,” the single’s flip side, is kind of beautiful – a smooth, moving, mellow, soulful number. All four of these songs were included on Search And Nearness, the band’s final LP to include all four original band members.

Eddie Brigati and Gene Cornish left the band, and The Rascals switched labels, from Atlantic to Columbia. Buzz Feiten (from The Paul Butterfield Blues Band) and Robert Popwell joined The Rascals for the next album, Peaceful World. “Love Me,” that album’s first single, just barely made it into the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #95. And none of the group’s remaining singles got that far. That doesn’t mean they’re bad songs, of course. “Love Letter,” which was the B-side to “Lucky Day,” is particularly fun, and I love both the horns and the keys. This one becomes a good jam toward the end. By the way, this disc has twenty-one tracks rather than twenty-two, because “Saga Of New York” was used as the flip side to both “Brother Tree” and “Jungle Walk.”

CD Track List

Disc One
  1. I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore
  2. Slow Down
  3. Good Lovin’
  4. Mustang Sally
  5. You Better Run
  6. Love Is A Beautiful Thing
  7. Come On Up
  8. What Is The Reason
  9. I’ve Been Lonely Too Long
  10. If You Knew
  11. Groovin’
  12. Sueño
  13. A Girl Like You
  14. It’s Love
  15. Groovin’ (Spanish Version)
  16. Groovin’ (Italian Veresion)
  17. How Can I Be Sure
  18. I’m So Happy Now
  19. It’s Wonderful
  20. Of Course
  21. A Beautiful Morning
  22. Rainy Day
  23. People Got To Be Free
  24. My World
  25. A Ray Of Hope
  26. Any Dance’ll Do!
Disc Two
  1. Heaven
  2. Baby I’m Blue
  3. See
  4. Away Away
  5. Carry Me Back
  6. Real Thing
  7. Hold On
  8. I Believe
  9. Glory Glory
  10. You Don’t Know
  11. Right On
  12. Almost Home
  13. Love Me
  14. Happy Song
  15. Lucky Day
  16. Love Letter
  17. Brother Tree
  18. Saga Of New York
  19. Hummin’ Song
  20. Echoes
  21. Jungle Walk 
The Complete Singles A’s & B’s was released on March 3, 2017 through Real Gone Music.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Shawna Virago: “Heaven Sent Delinquent” (2016) CD Review

These are terrifying and depressing days, when an insane narcissist and his rabid band of racists are dismantling the country while swearing they are doing precisely the opposite. Among their many offenses is their removal of support for transgendered students. It drives me nuts when people fight against something that does them no harm whatsoever. Just think of all the money that religious groups sank into Proposition 8 here in California back in 2008, trying to keep gay people from getting married. What difference would it make it to them if other people celebrated their love and dedication to each other with a ceremony? And now there is this crazy controversy over which bathrooms transgender students use. Can you imagine how difficult it is for these kids as it is? Bloody hell, let’s show people a little kindness, a little understanding.

Well, in these troubled times, it’s more important than ever to support our artists (particularly when the government wants to pull funding for the National Endowment for the Arts). Singers and songwriters are the folks I’m turning to more and more for some relief from the horror coming from Washington, D.C.  One CD that is really working for me is Shawna Virago’s Heaven Sent Delinquent, her newest release. Shawna Virago is a transgender artist (something that in better times I might not even mention, but that now seems important to point out), and her music possesses a great honesty and a frankness and a sense of humor, all without losing sight of the poetry. I’ve long been a fan of folk music, and I especially appreciate folk music with a punk energy and attitude. Here Shawna Virago delivers. Here she thrives. Sometimes there is nothing more powerful than a singer with a guitar.

She opens the album with “Bright Green Ideas,” which has a great, pumping energy, and there is delicious humor in lines like “I said you’re intoxicating/You look like a movie star/You said I must be intoxicated/But you liked the way I danced on the bar” and especially “Mama told me to beware/Of any boy who was polite/But when you said ‘May I please/Sit on your face tonight’/I thought what did Mama ever get right?” Those lines make me smile every time I listen to this disc. And this may be the only song to use the phrase “your well-hung tongue.” It’s followed by “Gender Armageddon,” the first song I heard from this album, the one that got me interested. It’s a powerful song that, to my ears, contains both hope and heartbreak in its delivery. It also has some damn good lyrics. Check out these lines: “You said you were so afraid to lie in your bed/You had too many cruel strangers sleeping in your head.” And then in “The Ballad Of Miss Suzy Texas,” the chorus really stands out: “Take her break her, take her break her/Take her break her, break her heart in two/Take her break her, break her heart in two/You might think but she won’t break like you.” It’s that last line that really makes it work.

“Last Night’s Sugar” is slower, intimate, brutal song of seemingly futile longing. And it’s one of my favorites. Check out these lines, which open the song: “Some people have no surprises in them/You can set your clock by their routines/I’m watching my baby lose his paycheck/To rigged slot machines.” She follows that by repeating, “Give me a taste of last night’s sugar,” wanting to return to when things were better, before economic troubles divided them, ruined them. That’s followed by the album’s title track, “Heaven Sent Delinquent,” a song that also mixes hope with a sad dose of reality. On the one hand, you want the song’s protagonist to make good on her escape from a messed up town and non-supportive family. On the other hand, her method of escape leaves a bit to be desired. “One of these days I’ll get away/I told myself as they bowed and prayed/And I won’t need a car or suitcase/Just some heels and my pretty face.”

Another highlight is “Burnout,” a funny song about a first sexual encounter. This one too has some excellent lyrics, like “And to just speak in lower case/But sometimes we’d lose our manners.” I really like these lines: “I thought what a loser but I liked his primate attitude/Around town he was a big noise/He said ‘I don’t normally kiss boys’/I said ‘That’s all right, sugar, I normally do’/So I took a chance/And taught him the steps to the mystery dance.” Shawna plays harmonica on this track. She also plays harmonica on the CD’s closing number, “Land Of Guns And Honey,” another of the CD’s best tracks. Her vocal delivery and the harmonica certainly bring to mind some of Bob Dylan’s work. Check out these lines: “I fell for a handsome salesman who specialized in escapism/He carried a big suitcase filled with stockings, booze and condoms/Driving through this land of guns and honey/I have learned talk is cheap and whiskey is money.” Pretty good, eh? “When it’s hot you pray for rain, and when it comes you don’t/This country can kill you, then again, what country won’t?

CD Track List
  1. Bright Green Ideas
  2. Gender Armageddon
  3. The Ballad Of Miss Suzy Texas
  4. Last Night’s Sugar
  5. Heaven Sent Delinquent
  6. Burnout
  7. Anniversary Song
  8. The Pleasure Car
  9. Holy Rollers
  10. Land Of Guns And Honey
Heaven Sent Delinquent was released on December 1, 2016 on Tranimal Records. (Yeah, the name Tranimal makes me laugh, in part because it reminds me of that goofy short-lived series Manimal. Remember that one?)

Sunday, March 5, 2017

E-Life 7: “Miked Up” (2017) CD Review

Every day presents more horrible news from Washington, D.C. It’s impossible to even keep track of everything that’s gone wrong. It’s too much, and it’s happened too quickly. It often feels like we’re going to be crushed by the weight of it, and most of us feel that constant tension in our gut. Maybe the trick is to just dance and glide through the apocalypse, hope for the best, and come out the other side smiling, if exhausted, ready to survey the damage. I don’t know if it’s the best course of action. But the debut CD from E-Life 7, Miked Up, ought to help in that endeavor should you choose that path. This disc provides some delicious funky tunes, mixing in jazz and modern R&B elements. These are mostly instrumentals, and mostly original material. The band is made up of Michael Pennick on bass, Rodney Spears on keys, Charlie Crymes Jr. on keys, Ronald Walker on guitar and Tim Webb on drums. Joining them on certain tracks are Ken Whitman on saxophone, Walter Kemp III on keys, Van Taylor on keys, Joey Diggs on vocals and Dee Osbourne on vocals. By the way, E-Life 7 means to enjoy life seven days a week (and is not some strange online electronic life, as I’d first surmised).

This disc kicks off with a funky bit of fun titled “Sunday Night.” Perfect for tonight. And I immediately dig that bass. Be prepared to dance, because this instrumental number definitely has some 1980s vibes worked into its structure. It was written by Ronald Walker. There is a brief bass solo halfway through. And then the second track, “Chaos,” also written by Ronald Walker, opens with some fantastic work on bass. This one has a much more interesting, unusual groove, which I love. It’s a very cool and driven jam, and is one of my personal favorites. I just wish it were longer. It’s over too soon. But no worries, as the next track, “Second Level,” also begins with the bass. There is a funky element to this one, though also with a pop dance feel. This one was written by Michael Pennick.

“Smooth Ride” is a slightly mellower number, but still with some damn good work on bass. This one features Ken Whitman on saxophone, and his horn works to raise us up. (Ken Whitman also joins the group on saxophone for “Sunrise.”) “Smooth Ride” is followed by “Inner Beauty,” which also features some mellower exploration, in the modern R&B realm, with just little touches of prog rock. But again, there is more delicious work on bass, and this track features Walter Kemp III on keys. Van Taylor joins the band for a good instrumental rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “That Girl,” the album’s only cover.

“Tony Rome” was written by Ron Walker and Michael Pennick, and features some excellent playing by Michael Pennick and some interesting changes. It gets kind of wild just as it’s ending. This CD also includes a second, somewhat shorter “radio edit” version of this one.  “Feelin You” features vocals by Dee Osbourne and Joey Diggs. “I’ve been watching you, baby/You’ve been turning me on/Don’t you know that I am feelin’ you.” Ah yes, somewhat romantic, somewhat creepy. Leaving this song on a stranger’s answering machine, for example, might not be received with the type of excitement you’d want to generate. “Feelin You” was written by Ron Walker and Michael Pennick. There is a second, shorter version of this song as well. “I want you in my life/I don’t want to be lonely tonight.”

“Before The Storm” is a cool, kind of mellow and passionate journey with a positive vibe, which I appreciate. This is another of my favorites, and has some really good work on keys as well as bass. “Before The Storm” was written by Tim Webb and Michael Pennick. That’s followed by another cool number, “Miked Up,” the CD’s title track, which was written by Ron Walker and Michael Pennick. It’s time to get funky, baby. Just focus on the beat and ignore the news for a bit, things might be okay. This track does have vocals by Joey Diggs and Dee Osbourne, but sort of in the background. “Let’s get miked up.” This one is a really good jam, and is for me another of the CD’s highlights.

CD Track List
  1. Sunday Night
  2. Chaos
  3. Second Level
  4. Smooth Ride
  5. Inner Beauty
  6. That Girl
  7. Tony Rome
  8. Sunrise
  9. Feelin You
  10. Before The Storm
  11. Miked Up
  12. Beautiful Day
  13. Tony Rome (radio edit)
  14. Feelin You (radio edit)
Miked Up is scheduled to be released on March 24, 2017 through Three 2 Go Music.