Thursday, May 24, 2018

Geoff & Maria Muldaur: “Sweet Potatoes” (1972/2018) CD Review

Geoff & Maria Muldaur recorded two albums together. The first, Pottery Pie, came out in 1968. The second, Sweet Potatoes, came out four years later. And that was that. It wasn’t just the end of their recordings together, but also the end of their marriage. Both went on to further successes, as you’re undoubtedly aware. And somehow both Pottery Pie and Sweet Potatoes remained unreleased on CD in the U.S. until now. Unlike Pottery Pie, Sweet Potatoes contains some original material, written by Geoff Muldaur. Like the CD release of Pottery Pie, this disc contains new liner notes, focusing on interviews with both Geoff and Maria. Maria Muldaur doesn’t have as strong a presence on this album as on the previous release. Amos Garrett, Bill Keith and Billy Mundi all played on Pottery Pie and return for this album. Fellow Grateful Dead fans will be interested to know that John Kahn plays bass on this album. There are several other guest musicians as well.

The album starts with “Blue Railroad Train,” a totally enjoyable country tune written by Alton Delmore. That’s followed by a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Havana Moon.” This version has folk and blues elements, and features Paul Butterfield on harmonica. Then we get “Lazybones,” a relaxed, jazzy gem with a wonderful vocal performance from Amos Garrett. It opens with a bit of dialogue between Geoff and Amos, and likewise ends with a bit of dialogue. “You didn’t even offer me a drink.” The part that makes me laugh is when Amos says “No, no” and then “Yes, yes,” just the way he delivers those lines. This track features Bobby Notkoff on violin. “Lazybones” was written by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer.

“Cordelia” is the first of the album’s original compositions, written by Geoff Muldaur. It’s a lively number, and it has nothing to do with King Lear, if you were wondering. In the liner notes, Geoff mentions he “had an infatuation with a girl named Cordelia.” So there you go. I like the addition of trombone to this one. That’s followed by “Dardanella,” which comes as a delightful surprise. These guys certainly did not limit themselves to any one single type of music, and let their hearts take them where they would. And good thing, too, as this is one of my favorite tracks, with its horn section and New Orleans vibe in certain parts. I love Bobby Notkoff’s work on violin. There is a horn section in “I’m Rich” as well, a bluesy tune written by Geoff Muldaur. “I’m going to have gold-plated mushrooms/All the way from France/Get all them girls/To do a rich man’s dance.” Yeah, there is something playful about this song, which I love. And those horns are wonderful. “Let St. Peter know/I want top billing on that show.”

Maria sings lead on “Sweet Potatoes,” the album’s title track, accompanied only by Jeff Gutcheon on piano. Jeff Gutcheon also wrote this one. I love this song, in spite of its use of the “self”/“shelf” rhyme, which I never care for. Maria gives a wonderful vocal performance. That’s followed by the final of the original tunes, “Kneein’ Me,” written by Geoff Muldaur. This is a fun, energetic, somewhat goofy country tune with some surprising lyrics (“you pinched my tit, you dirty shit”). Geoff tells the story behind this one in the liner notes. I can’t help but completely enjoy this one, even with that odd mistake in the second half, where it seems part of the band thinks the song is ending. Then Maria sings lead on “Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be),” and she delivers an absolutely excellent vocal performance here. This track is certainly one of the highlights, and features some nice work on guitar. As with the previous release, they end this one with a classic blues song. This time it’s “Hard Time Killin’ Floor.” And actually, this track was recorded during the sessions for Pottery Pie, and so features Billy Wolf on bass rather than John Kahn. “Hard times is here, everywhere you go/Times are harder than they’ve ever been before.”

CD Track List
  1. Blue Railroad Train
  2. Havana Moon
  3. Lazybones
  4. Cordelia
  5. Dardanella
  6. I’m Rich
  7. Sweet Potatoes
  8. Kneein’ Me
  9. Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be)
  10. Hard Time Killin’ Floor
Sweet Potatoes was released on CD on March 30, 2018 through Omnivore Recordings.

Geoff & Maria Muldaur: “Pottery Pie” (1968/2018) CD Review

Before Maria Muldaur became known for “Midnight At The Oasis,” she and her husband Geoff put out two albums. The first, Pottery Pie, was released in 1968 (one of the best and most interesting years for music, in my opinion). At that time, both Geoff Muldaur and Maria Muldaur were known for their work in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. The album features all cover songs, and contains a good mix of folk and country and gospel and blues, with Geoff and Maria taking turns at lead vocals. Surprisingly, it has never before received an official CD release in the United States. (How is it that there are still albums this good that haven’t received CD releases? It’s baffling.) This CD release contains new liner notes, focusing on interviews with Geoff Muldaur and Maria Muldaur, in which they give their thoughts on various tracks. The band backing them on this album includes Bill Keith on pedal steel (Bill Keith has also played with them in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band), Amos Garrett on lead guitar, Billy Wolf on bass, Rick Marcus on drums, and Billy Mundi on drums. There are also horns on certain tracks. I don’t usually make much mention of album covers, but I love the photo that is on this album, mainly for the Yaz pennant on the wall. He was my favorite player when I was growing up, and he signed a ball for me when I was in the hospital. Go Sox!

The album opens with “Catch It,” a song written by Eric Von Schmidt, with Geoff on lead vocals. It’s a good, somewhat slow number with some memorable lyrics, like these lines: “If you want a gushing geyser/You have to dig yourself a bunch of dusty, little holes/And if you want good, good loving/You’ve got to love with a little soul.” That’s followed by a nice, relaxed country rendition of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” with Maria on lead vocals. She delivers a delightful, somewhat playful vocal performance. I like this rendition a lot, though I think my favorite remains that by Rita Coolidge. Then Geoff sings lead on “New Orleans Hopscop Blues,” an older tune perhaps still best known for the recording by Bessie Smith. This is an interesting rendition, with horns and wonderful backing vocals.

Maria sings lead on a pretty, gentle and honest rendition of “Trials, Troubles, Tribulations” a folk and gospel tune. Betsy Siggins provides some backing vocals. That’s followed by “Prairie Lullaby,” here oddly misspelled as “Lullabye.” This is a country tune written by Billy Hill and recorded by Jimmie Rodgers (and by many other artists since then, including Michael Nesmith). Geoff does an excellent job with it, adding a spoken word section in the second half of the song. I love the fiddle. Then Maria performs “Guide Me, O Great Jehovah” a cappella, delivering a beautiful version. This song has a few other titles, including “Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer.” They then give us a lively, fun number titled “Me And My Chauffeur Blues,” also with Maria on lead vocals. She gives a totally enjoyable and varied performance here, helping to make this one of my favorite tracks.

The album then takes another strange and delightful turn with “Brazil,” a song I absolutely love. Of course I can’t help but think of Terry Gilliam’s fantastic film whenever I hear this song. But this version in particular calls the film to mind since it is in fact the version heard in the film. I didn’t know that the recording heard in the film came from this album, and am excited to now have it on CD. Geoff talks a bit about it in the liner notes (and hints that there are several more anecdotes regarding this recording, anecdotes which I long to hear). This is actually the first version of the song I ever heard, thanks to the movie. And every version I’ve heard since… well, I’ve wanted them all to be more like this one, which is totally playful. By the way, if for some reason you haven’t seen Brazil, you should make a point to get the DVD and watch it right away.

“Brazil” is followed by a sweet, timeless rendition of “Georgia On My Mind,” with Maria on lead vocals. The album then ends with a classic blues tune, “Death Letter Blues,” with Geoff on lead vocals. This one has kind of a bouncy rhythm, quite a bit different from most versions I’ve heard, and I totally dig it.

CD Track List
  1. Catch It
  2. I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight
  3. New Orleans Hopscop Blues
  4. Trials, Troubles, Tribulations
  5. Prairie Lullabye
  6. Guide Me, O Great Jehovah
  7. Me And My Chauffeur Blues
  8. Brazil
  9. Georgia On My Mind
  10. Death Letter Blues
Pottery Pie was released on CD on March 30, 2018 through Omnivore Recordings.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Ross Cooper: “I Rode The Wild Horses” (2018) CD Review

Ross Cooper was actually a professional bareback rider in Texas, so the title of his new album, I Rode The Wild Horses, is no mere fanciful idea or wish. He is the real thing. Of course, that wouldn’t matter much if the music weren’t good. But it is. And no, these aren’t all country songs about the rodeo circuit. Ross Cooper touches upon ideas and experiences and emotions that we all can relate to. I Rode The Wild Horses features all original material, written or co-written by Ross Cooper. Joining Ross on this album are some seriously talented musicians – Eddy Dunlap on pedal steel, Jeremy Fetzer on electric guitar, Nick Bockrath on guitar, Jordan Lehning on piano, Skylar Wilson on piano and organ, Eli Beard on bass, and Tommy Perkinson on drums. Erin Rae, Dean Fields and Eric Masse provide backing vocals. Eric Masse also produced and mixed the album.

The album opens with its title track, “I Rode The Wild Horses,” which has a very cool vibe, a kind of bluesy, haunted country sound. I love Ross Cooper’s vocals. And check out the song’s first lines: “This town, it’s a-changing, but I feel the same/I guess everything’s different but me/The old stomping grounds are all stomped out.” It’s a song that looks back, while taking stock of the present. “And I ain’t got much to show, but I rode the wild horses.” But perhaps my favorite lines are these: “Well, I’m a patchwork of scars/Posted at the bar/’Cause the pain ain’t up and left.” And then there is some surprising work on electric guitar. Plus, there are some nice moments on keys. That’s followed by “Heart Attacks,” which has something of a pop sound in the vocal delivery. It’s a fun tune with a kind of delightful energy and some interesting, unusual touches. “I was a wishful wanderer/Just a-minding my own/With half a mind to stay alone.” This one was written by Ross Cooper and David Borne. These first two tracks are among the album’s best.

Another highlight is “Living’s Hard, Loving’s Easy,” which has an appealing, easygoing folk vibe, and some nice work on acoustic guitar. It’s a song about struggling, but not letting that get the best of you, and has a positive outlook. “We keep working on the next gig to pay for the last/At night, take your classes/And I’ll write the songs/About you taking classes and me writing songs/Two pennies together until more come along.” This song is sweet, pretty, honest. “Living’s hard, harder than they said it would be/Living’s hard, living’s hard, but loving’s easy.” There is a really nice blending of voices. This one makes me feel good. “Another Mile” also has a bright, optimistic feel, which I appreciate, especially in these dark days. “Another mile, another day, boys/I ain’t there yet, but I’ll get it done/Looking for a place that don’t feel out of place/Somewhere I can face the someone I’ve become.”

“Cowboys & Indians” has a cool, darker, somewhat playful and yet dramatic sound, and is about how some folks put on the trappings of an identity. “And everybody wears a big hat now/Shooting off their guns so loud/And everybody just wants to get peace pipe high/Everybody’s living up in the clouds.” That leads him to say directly, “So everyone stop pretending you’re cowboys and Indians.” This one features some good work on guitar. It’s followed by another really good song, “Strangers In A Bar.” Check out these lines: “Taking pride in that no one understands you/And you should come with a warning/You’ll be alone in the morning/You’re fishing for the first of many drinks/Hooking fools on the first of many winks.” There is something both sad and oddly comforting in lines like, “’Cause by ourselves, we might be lonesome/But we don’t have to be alone.” Then “Me Only” comes on strong, with a force. It has a more raw sound, yet is also kind of groovy, and ends up being another of my favorites. “Maybe you’re sleeping, baby, that’s all right/Or you’re laying with him doing things I like.” The CD concludes with “All She Wrote,” about receiving a note from his love. The letter reads, “I don’t feel like I’m leaving, because you can’t leave a man already gone/And you know I tried to love you/So if you ever loved me, let me go.” He is caught off guard by the letter, and tells us “Well, I read it about a thousand times or so.” “All She Wrote” was written by Ross Cooper and Benjy Davis.

CD Track List
  1. I Rode The Wild Horses
  2. Heart Attacks
  3. Old Crow Whiskey & A Cornbread Moon
  4. Lady Of The Highway
  5. Living’s Hard, Loving’s Easy
  6. Damn Love
  7. Another Mile
  8. Cowboys & Indians
  9. Strangers In A Bar
  10. Me Only
  11. The Wilderness
  12. All She Wrote
I Rode The Wild Horses was released on March 9, 2018. It is available on both CD and vinyl.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Fugitives: “The Promise Of Strangers” (2018) CD Review

The Fugitives are a Canadian group, based in Vancouver, centered on the duo of Brendan McLeod and Adrian Glynn. They work in the folk realm, but with elements of pop and rock mixed into their music. Their new album, The Promise Of Strangers, features all original material, written by Brendan McLeod and Adrian Glynn. And the songwriting is certainly one of the duo’s strengths. These are emotionally engaging songs, some of them touching on serious topics. Brendan McLeod is on vocals and guitar; Adrian Glynn is on vocals, guitar, piano, bass, mandolin, synthesizer, organ and percussion. Joining them on this release are Steve Charles on banjo, bass and vocals; John Raham on drums and percussion; James Scholl on bass; Ali Romanow on violin and vocals; Ben Elliott on organ; Cory Sweet on saxophone; Vince Mai on trumpet, Cayne MacKenzie on synthesizers; Carly Frey on violin; Marcus Abramzik on bass; and Leon Power on drums.

On the CD case, in parentheses after the title of the first track, “No Words,” it says “for L. Cohen.” And that is what first piqued my interest in this disc. Leonard Cohen was (and still is, really) the world’s greatest songwriter, and I figure I can appreciate the music of any artist that appreciates his work. In that foul year of 2016, Leonard Cohen left us. In this CD’s liner notes, the band indicates this song was written the next day. That next day, by the way, was just as bad, for that was the day of the election which took away hope and gave us Trump. The song, however, is gorgeous and moving and powerful. “There used to be grace, there used to be meaning/I have no words, I think he took ‘em all out/I have no courage to face the night coming/I have no light to shine through this crowd/I never knew a stranger that heard my heart better.” Amen. The Awesome Strangers Gospel Choir joins them on this song, and there is a beautiful moment toward the end where the lyrics are delivered a cappella.

“See This Winter Out” has a more cheerful, positive sound, in part because of the work on banjo. But this song addresses loss too, and moving on. And it is in the moving on that this song feels positive. Like they say, “And we will see this winter out.” This is one of my favorite tracks, and it features some wonderful lyrics, like these lines: “Hope walks out of each room in your mind/We make our clumsy jokes/We can’t forget how to try/But you’ve always had one foot in the fire.” And I love that sweet work on violin. Several songs on this album deal with memories of those who have passed. “Northern Lights” is dedicated to Steel Audrey, a singer and songwriter who died in 2015. It has an uplifting feel, and I absolutely love the violin. “I can’t remember the things that you said/I’ve never been much of a steel trap/But I knew that we would be talking of these days/’Til we grew older/Oh, the Northern Lights/I’ll never need a better way to say goodbye.” Then in “Goodnight Everybody,” they sing “We’re here, then we’re gone/Just the pictures that hang on the wall.” Though this song is about being musicians on the road, these lines also remind us that life is so short. Many of these songs seem to remind us to appreciate those people in our lives, because it’s all so fleeting. The vocals are strong on all of these tracks, but this one in particular features wonderful vocal performances, and is another favorite of mine. It ends so beautifully, so gently.

Hey my mother sang but she couldn’t sing” is the first line of “My Mother Sang,” and it makes me think of my own mom. She can’t sing, but no matter. This one features more nice work on violin. “Orlando” is about the shooting at Pulse. It’s so hard to come to terms with an attack or shooting, for each day seems to bring a fresh horror. The Orlando nightclub shooting happened in the summer of that most foul year 2016, and there have been dozens of mass shootings since then. “But enough is enough is enough is enough,” The Fugitives sing in this song. It is something I feel we’ve been saying for a long time. We need strict gun control legislation right now, and we’re not going to get it from the assholes currently in power. So those assholes need to be removed, and immediately.

“Come Back Down” has an uplifting sound. Nothing sounds as positive as these lines right now: “We’ll be waking up to take the town/Take it back for good.” Oh yes! The album then concludes with “Lights Out,” a song dedicated to Adam Capay. I did not know the story of Adam Capay, but looked it up after seeing this song’s dedication. Adam Capay was held in solitary confinement for more than four years while awaiting trial (the United Nations has stated that being held in solitary confinement for more than fifteen days is torture). The overhead light in Adam Capay’s room never was turned off; thus, the song’s title. “Get lost in the lost sleep/And dream your way through the underground to a place you’d rather be/’Cause for all this there’s nothing to say.”

CD Track List
  1. No Words
  2. See This Winter Out
  3. Till It Feels Like Home
  4. Northern Lights
  5. Goodnight Everybody
  6. My Mother Sang
  7. London In The Sixties
  8. Orlando
  9. Wild One
  10. Come Back Down
  11. Lights Out 
The Promise Of Strangers was released on January 26, 2018 on Borealis Records.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

D.O.A.: “Fight Back” (2018) CD Review

The world is in a depressing and dangerous state, and anyone who is even remotely conscious wants to just scream at nearly every moment. There is so much to scream about, and every day we’re given a dozen fresh hells, thanks to that repulsive racist Donald Trump and his gang of corrupt cretins. It is the perfect time for some good hardcore punk, and the new album from Canada’s D.O.A., Fight Back, is just exactly what we need. They give us a whole lot of truth, and they deliver it hard and fast. Truth we can shout, music that might motivate us to actually do something. Or, at the very least, make us feel a bit better by letting off some steam. D.O.A. has been touring and putting out albums since 1978, and after forty years they show no signs of letting up here. The music on this disc is vibrant and exciting and fun and energizing. With one exception, these tracks are originals, written by vocalist and guitarist Joe Keithley.

The album gets off to a good start with “You Need An Ass Kickin’ Right Now,” a lively tune to get you on your feet. And check out these lyrics: “Yeah, you make me sick/When you start to spin your shit/The lies come out your lips/On your psychotic power trip.” It’s a short song, not even a minute and a half, but is perfect. By the way, the band put out a good video for this song. I don’t normally give a shit about music videos, but this one makes a statement and is definitely worth checking out. And some of the people shown in it – like Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump – are people I would personally like to smack. They deserve a serious ass kicking. That song is followed by “Killer Cops,” which contains a reference to “Bad Boys.” “What ya gonna say to your conscience (it makes me sick)/What ya gonna do when they come for you.”  “Time To Fight Back,” the album’s title track, is one of the best. This is one you’ll be singing along with, and it’s designed for that, working almost like a folk song at the beginning. “It’s time we all fight back/’Cause we’re always under attack/And if we want a taste of freedom/Then we’ll all fight back.” And in fact, a few lines toward the end might bring to mind some of Woody Guthrie’s lyrics.

Another of my favorites is “Just Got Back From The USA.,” with the repeated line “Hey, hey, get out of my way, I just got back from the U.S.A.” There are a lot of good songs about the current administration, songs inspired by its unrelenting and unabashed spouting of total horseshit, songs touching on its brazen racism. This one captures the energy and attitude of the country. Check out these lines: “There’s racists marching in the street/‘Cause the White House is paving the way/They’re rubbing their crotches and shooting their guns/So you better watch out, watch out today.” And then in “Gonna Set You Straight,” they sing “Well, I’m gonna set you straight, you son of a bitch/And I don’t care if you’re stinkin’ rich/’Cause you don’t mean jack shit to me.” Oh, how I hope someone sets every last member of Trump’s administration straight. This is a good, angry song, matching the way so many of us feel these days. That’s followed by “State Control,” which has a similar energy. This one is a call to resist those forces that believe they have us. It touches upon those seemingly ever-present surveillance cameras and social media. “If you don’t resist, there’s fuck all you can do.” It’s frightening.

“The Last Beer” has a different feel. It is a kind of fun, bouncy tune (seriously), and it’s bloody great. This song is a fond look back at a friendship with someone who died too soon, and it is a surprising favorite of mine. “I remember when we had no fear/We’d shoot the shit and down some beer/And consider life for what it’s worth/But now you’ve gone and left this earth/I miss you, my friend, you crazy fool/Now memories will have to do.” I love the joy (even if it is tinged with sadness) and innocence to the sound of this one. The only cover on the album is “Wanted Man,” written by Bob Dylan and originally recorded by Johnny Cash. D.O.A. does a damn good rendition. This isn’t the first time D.O.A. has covered Dylan. The band also recorded “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Masters Of War.” The album then concludes with “World’s Been Turned Upside Down,” a strong look at the current state of things, opening with the line “All the guns and all the hatred,” which is sadly so damn pertinent every day. And check out these lines: “Our morals have abandoned us and justice does not exist/Where do we go from here, do we hide our heads and drown in tears/The world’s been turned, turned upside down.” But it does contain an optimistic note, which I appreciate. “The fascists are back, have we gone blind/It’s a struggle to stay strong/But it’s always darkest before the dawn.”

CD Track List
  1. You Need An Ass Kickin’ Right Now
  2. Killer Cops
  3. Time To Fight Back
  4. We Won’t Drink This Piss
  5. Just Got Back From The USA
  6. You Can’t Stop Me
  7. Gonna Set You Straight
  8. State Control
  9. The Last Beer
  10. The Cops Are Comin’
  11. I’m Desperate
  12. Wanted Man
  13. World’s Been Turned Upside Down
Fight Back was released on May 4, 2018 on Sudden Death Records.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins: “Are YOU One Of Jay’s Kids? The Complete Bizarre Sessions 1990-1994” (2018) CD Review

Are YOU One Of Jay’s Kids? The Complete Bizarre Sessions 1990-1994 is a wild two-disc set of music that Screamin’ Jay Hawkins put out in the nineties. I had no idea that Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was recording material and releasing albums in the early 1990s. How did this slip my attention? Like everyone, I had seen that great early footage of him performing “I Put A Spell On You.” And I’d heard some of his other recordings from around that time, and the stuff he put out in the seventies (who can forget the wonderful “Constipation Blues”?). But I was completely unaware of his 1990s output. Not only was he recording in the nineties, but a great number of the songs in this collection are originals, written by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. And there is a lot of music here. This collection contains three complete albums, plus some previously unreleased tracks, totally nearly 158 minutes. And he is clearly having a damn good time here. These are fun tracks with an insane amount of energy.

The first twelve tracks on the first disc make up his 1991 LP, Black Music For White People. It opens with “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” which is great fun. This track swings, and has something of a big band vibe, but with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ delicious raw vocal delivery and some delightful backing vocals. “A woman, she’s a creature that has always been strange/Just when you’re sure of one/You’ll find she’s gone and made a change.” That’s followed by “I Feel Alright,” another fun number that moves along at a good clip and contains this declaration of love: “Did you hear every word I said/You belong to me until you’re dead.” This album includes a totally strange rendition of his most popular song, “I Put A Spell On You.” It’s an odd mix, almost like someone in the 1980s tried to update it, adding new music to the old recording. And then suddenly there is a rap. What the hell? It’s totally goofy, without that great sense of danger that the original recording has. But there is something here that still draws me in. The ending is bizarre, like he’s a dog tearing into some flesh, and suddenly a woman climaxes or something.

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins delivers a lively, delightful cover of “I Hear You Knocking” (here titled “I Hear You Knockin’”), the song that was a hit for Smiley Lewis in the fifties. I love the backing vocals in Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ rendition. He follows that with a cover of Tom Waits’ “Heartattack And Vine” (here titled “Heart Attack And Vine”). Living in Los Angeles, I can’t help but love this song, its title a play on one of the most famous corners in the city. Screamin’ Jay inserts himself into the song’s lyrics. I love the horn. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins also covers Tom Waits’ “Ice Cream Man.” The most surprising cover from Black Music For White People has got to be “Ol’ Man River.” It starts out rather gently, then suddenly explodes in violence, before then relaxing again. It is a strange ride.

“Ignant And Shit” comes as a delicious surprise, having the feel of an improvised rant, with a lot of humor – some of it sexual, some of it about barbecuing neighborhood pets. Meanwhile the band jams, a nice jazzy groove. This one had me smiling and laughing. That’s followed by “Swamp Gas,” a very cool tune, and probably one more in line with what you’d expect from the man who brought us “I Put A Spell On You.” It has a raw, tribal feel, and I dig that percussion. Then “Voodoo Priest” begins with some dialogue about religion and ghosts. When Screamin’ Jay Hawkins sings “I Want Your Body,” you can’t be sure right away if he means it sexually or if he wants your corpse (which, hell, could also be sexual). But once you get into this bluesy song, it’s clear that the woman in question is still alive. This song features some really nice work on guitar, plus saxophone. Black Music For White People concludes with a funky cover of Clarence Carter’s “Strokin’.”

As far as I can tell, the next two tracks – “My Best Friend’s Girl” and “Another Pain” – were previously unreleased. “My Best Friend’s Girl” begins with a bit of studio banter, and features some cool percussion. It’s a good bluesy number. “Another Pain” has a classic blues sound, with some nice work on keys and saxophone. “Another pain ain’t no worse/’Til you ride in that black hearse.”

The last six tracks on the first disc are from his 1993 LP Stone Crazy (the first side of the record version). It kicks off with “Strange,” a ridiculously delightful tune. It alternates between asking some odd questions (“How many crumbs in bread?”), and professing love for a strange woman. Ah, I know the feeling. Then, surprisingly, we suddenly get the woman’s perspective. I love this song; it’s one of this set’s best tracks. He loves another unusual woman in Willie Mabon’s “I Don’t Know.” This version features some fun backing vocals. That’s followed by a cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Who’s Been Talkin’,” a blues rock tune, and then a very cool cover of Ray Charles “I Believe To My Soul” (here titled “I Believe”), changing “my name is Ray” to “my name is Screamin’ Jay.”

“Stone Crazy,” the record’s the title track, is a whole lot of fun, with some goofy scat-like vocals. Then “Last Saturday Night,” the first disc’s closing track, begins with some studio banter. “What is going on there?” And when the song begins, it turns out to be an Irish folk song titled “Seven Drunken Nights.” Gaelic Storm used to do epic versions of this song back when they played O’Brien’s every Sunday, with a whole lot of audience participation (“what do you want, you drunken shite?”) and drinking contests with every verse. In the liner notes to this two-disc set, it says the song was written by Hawkins. Nope.  Wrong. Not even close. But he does change the lyrics more than a bit. Ha, this version mentions Wade Boggs, which makes me happy (“That ain’t nothing but a baseball bat Wade Boggs gave to me”).

The second disc begins with the second half of Stone Crazy, starting with a seriously fun rendition of “Call The Plumber,” a song with delightfully suggestive lyrics like “There’s got to be a leak in my drain” and lines about the milkman providing a woman with a lot of children. That’s followed by “I Wanna Know,” another totally enjoyable track with a wonderful rhythm. “I wanna know/What you see when you look down there.” Then we get “Sherilyn Fenn,” a sexy song about the actor who first became really popular for her role on Twin Peaks. But before she took that role, she starred in a film called Two Moon Junction, which also featured Screamin’ Jay Hawkins basically playing himself at a blues club. The song is fun, and in it he replaces the male lead in the film as Sherilyn’s love interest. Things get sillier with “Late Night Hawkins,” in which he plays a late-night comedian at a jazz club. That’s followed by “On The Job,” a kind of funky tune, and then “I Am The Queen” closes out Stone Crazy.

The next thirteen tracks are from Somethin’ Funny Goin’ On, a 1994 release. There are three tracks among those thirteen that weren’t listed on the original album, the three “Amy Fisher” songs. More on those in a bit. The album kicks off with its title track, “Somethin’ Funny Goin’ On,” a rocking blues tune. The blues gets a bit heavier with “I Am The Cool,” in which Screamin’ Jay brags, “I’m the one your mama warned you about/When you see me, I will leave you no doubt/I’m the coolest man that ever walked this Earth/I have been the coolest since the day of my birth.” Hey, who are we to argue? He even spurns Madonna in the song. That’s followed by another Tom Waits song, “Whistling Past The Graveyard.” Then we get a fun party song, “Rock The House,” in which Screamin’ Jay takes on the role of the devil.

“Amy Fisher Part 1” follows “Rock The House.” For those who may have forgotten, Amy Fisher, known as the Long Island Lolita, shot Mary Jo Buttafuoco. Any was seventeen at the time, and ended up serving seven years in prison. So when Screamin’ Jay Hawkins recorded these short tracks, Any was serving time. In this first part, he sings, “Amy Fisher is my fantasy girl” and “She leaves me with a giant erection.” In “Amy Fisher Part 2,” which fades in, he sings, “Amy Fisher, I love your shorts/Covering up your venereal warts/I bet up there, there are things creepy and crawly/Like Little Richard would yell, ‘Good golly, Miss Molly.’” Now, as far as I can tell, these first two parts were not included on the original release. “Amy Fisher Part 3,” however, which follows “Fourteen Wives,” was included on the original release (though apparently not on the Japanese release), as an unlisted track. Perhaps it’s because the lyrics aren’t quite as bold: “Amy Fisher, you sure look fine/You look like you’ve been drinking alligator wine.”

“Brujo” is another glorious, mean blues song, with some boasting and bragging: “I knocked out Michael Tyson/Then he never was the same/Played horn with Sinatra, dined with JFK/I’m the only one who knew who blew him away.” But what I love is the line that follows that: “Let’s drink to the man that I once was.” That’s followed by another fun tune, “You Make Me Sick,” with nice work on horn. I love the way Screamin’ Jay Hawkins belts out “When You Walked Out The Door,” a song using that classic blues riff. “I had to put up with your mama/Two hundred pounds of screaming meat/I could hardly eat my dinner/For the smell of that woman’s feet/And now you up and left me.” That’s followed by “Fourteen Wives,” the final track listed on the original release of Somethin’ Funny Goin’ On. This is a lively, rockin’ tune featuring horns.

There are five more tracks at the end of the second disc, which weren’t on any of the three original albums collected in this two-disc set. However, it appears that four of them were included on the 2000 compilation Best Of The Bizarre Sessions: 1990-1994: “Upsettin’ Me,” “Make You Mine,” “Just For You” and “Shut Your Mouth When You Sneeze.” “Upsettin’ Me” begins with some cool work on bass. The song is about how a woman can make a man a little crazy. “Can’t you feel it, pretty mama/I’m raising my flag just for you.” “Make You Mine” and “Just For You” are fun, rockin’ numbers with backing vocals. I particularly like “Just For You,” which also features some good work on guitar. “Shut Your Mouth When You Sneeze” is a wild and goofy tune. “I just can’t stand your funky breath/You’re bound to make someone near death.” This collection concludes with “Clam Bake,” a previously unreleased track about forty-two people who are ready to eat and enjoy themselves on the beach. So, for the record, I believe the five previously unreleased tracks are “My Best Friend’s Girl,” “Another Pain,” “Amy Fisher Part 1,” “Amy Fisher Part 2” and “Clam Bake.”

Are YOU One Of Jay’s Kids? The Complete Bizarre Sessions 1990-1994 is scheduled to be released on May 18, 2018 on Manifesto Records.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Once: “Time Enough” (2018) CD Review

The Once is a trio based in St. John’s, Newfoundland, mixing folk and pop sounds and known for beautiful harmonies. Time Enough, the band’s new release, is its fourth full-length album, and features original material. With one exception, this album’s tracks were written by the three band members – Geraldine Hollett, Phil Churchill and Andrew Dale. These guys have their own style, their own sound, and the more I listened, the more I came to appreciate and love what they’re doing on this album.

The album opens with “I Can’t Live Without You,” which features some good, laid-back, enjoyable 1970s-type vibes. And their sweet vocals add to the positive, pleasing sound. “I won’t walk away/’Til I hear you say/I’m sorry/We’re one and the same/You don’t have to treat us this way/Let’s bend all the rules/So nobody will lose.” Daniel Ledwell joins them on this song, which was released as the first single from the album. It’s followed by “Before The Fall,” which starts off with a somewhat grittier, more serious sound. It opens with the line, “I lost it all somehow,” which feels almost like the end of a story. But then the second line is in response to it: “Well, what are you going to do now?” Perfect, right? It’s suddenly looked at as a possible beginning rather than ending. There is both a sense of loss and a sense of possibilities. This is an excellent song, using both male and female lead vocals. Its lyrics mention dreams, as does the next song, “Any Other Way,” an energetic tune. “If I lay awake in bed with dreams full of dread/Would you wipe away my fears?” This song has a lot of memorable lines, such as “Would you remember my face/If you could no longer see/If I was alone and lost in the woods/Would you come find me.

“Lead Me Lover” features some of the most beautiful blending of voices of the album, all over a steady, prominent beat. It’s interesting, as the beat keeps us grounded, but these vocals lift us up. “Lead me, lover/To somewhere you’ve never been/With any other lover.” Oh, yes. I feel like this song itself can lead us into new territory, of tender wonder. Then “Another Morning” begins with the line “Get up, get up, get up now,” something I basically have to tell myself every morning. This track has a gentle folk sound. “Open eyes/September skies/I kissed you back in June.” Something about this song really moves me, and it is more effective each time I listen to it. It is followed by “You Don’t Love Me,” which begins with just vocals and guitar, and builds from there, to include drums and then backing vocals and eventually even saxophone. That’s Ian Sherwood on saxophone, and his presence comes as a delightful and perfect surprise. This track is yet another highlight, and I love the work on percussion. I’m also taken with the way that Geraldine approaches the lyrics, the way she delivers lines like “I’ve tested you enough to see/You’d stoop to bended knee/To prove to you first, then to me/That you love me.”

We are dying from the moment we are born” is the first line of “Foreign Shore,” a song that features Daniel Ledwell again joining the trio on several instruments. This one has a bit of a 1970s vibe, and has some wonderful lines, like “Moving forward, but always looking back/Seeking all that we are, and all that we lack.” This question of the movement of time and living within memory is also addressed in “We Look Back,” where they sing “We look back/On all of the chances we had.” Riff Jelly plays bass clarinet on both “Foreign Shore” and “We Look Back.” The album then concludes with “Some Lies,” a song written by Tim Baker. It has a pretty, comforting sound, with beautiful vocals. Jenn Grant and Daniel Ledwell provide backing vocals on this track. I don’t mind admitting that this one had me in tears. “I feel you lean against me/In the fire’s heat, in the fire’s heat/You are with me now/I can feel you here somehow/Love, you’re always with me.”

CD Track List
  1. I Can’t Live Without You
  2. Before The Fall
  3. Any Other Way
  4. Lead Me Lover
  5. Another Morning
  6. You Don’t Love Me
  7. Foreign Shore
  8. We Look Back
  9. Some Lies 
Time Enough was released on May 11, 2018.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Tami Neilson: “Sassafrass!” (2018) CD Review

Growing up, Tami Neilson was part of her family’s band in Canada. Now she is based in New Zealand, where she has won awards for her music and songwriting, particularly in the country realm. Her new album, Sassafrass!, certainly not strictly a country record, features all original material. She dips into a lot of different musical realms here, and seems perfectly at home in them all. Actually, hell, she seems to rule them all, like she has sent out multiple versions of herself to take over all known areas, and then created some new areas, which she will also rule over. Here you will find soul, country, and blues, much of it making use of a classic sound, delivered with power, energy and attitude. And joy.  The band is made up of Tami Neilson on vocals and acoustic guitar, Neil Watson on guitar and pedal steel, Brett Adams on guitar, Mike Hall on bass, and Joe McCallum on drums and percussion. There are also several guest musicians and backing vocalists.

The album opens with “Stay Outta My Business,” a ridiculously fun tune with horns and with backing vocals echoing her, something of an early rock and roll vibe. “Damned if I do and damned if I don’t/You want me play that game, but I won’t/You’re only happy causing trouble and strife/But I’m too busy with my damn-good-without-you-in-it life.” The way she delivers that last line, actually the last word of that line, her voice rising up to the stratosphere, is fantastic. And that leads to an excellent instrumental section, a full sound, with a surplus of energy. That’s followed by more fun with “Bananas,” a goofy, delightful tune. Peal a banana, start a conga line, and enjoy life. But, as seemingly silly as this song might be, it actually has an important message about equality. “It will leave you reeling when you hit the glass ceiling/Watch your pretty head, take my advice/Best think twice, just play nice/Keep those big ambitions of yours on ice. Then toward the end it has a seriously cool section. “You want equal pay/Just for working all night and day.” These first two tracks were co-written with her brother, Jay Neilson.

Things then get bluesy with “Diamond Ring,” a glorious and somewhat raw number, complete with backing vocals. “Don’t need the pain that loving brings/Don’t want no other man’s diamond ring.” “Devil In A Dress” sounds like it could play during a James Bond film’s opening credits, like she’s singing of a Bond girl, maybe the villain. “Heart of innocence or villainy/One-dimensional fantasy/Here to curse or bless/A damsel in distress/Or just a devil in a dress.” I love when she raises her voice. This song also features some cool work on guitar and some wonderful touches on horns. “One Thought Of You” has a classic sound, like one of those delicious slow tunes from the earlier days of country. It’s a pretty and earnest love song, and Tami Neilson delivers another excellent vocal performance. “With just one thought of you/To get me through the night/I dream the sweetest dreams/But it seems all those dreams/End with daylight." This one was co-written by her father, Ron Neilson.

“Smoking Gun” is a mean, bluesy number dominated by percussion, and with some strong lyrics about sexual harassment in Los Angeles. Check out these lines: “Well, there’s a predator creepin’ in the pool/The king of the casting couch where he rules/Golden boy has started to crack/Squirming like a worm under our magnifying glass.” This one also features more good work by the backing vocalists. That’s followed by “Kitty Cat,” a seemingly silly, fun rockabilly number that – perhaps no surprise by now – contains a message. “She might wave her tail in your direction/Show you a little bit of love and affection/Lick and purr and give you a scratch/But that don’t mean that she’s your kitty cat.” Then “Manitoba Sunrise At Motel 6” is a kind of beautiful mellow country tune. “Oh lonesome prairie wind/Won’t you blow me home again/To the love I left behind/That never leaves my mind/Oh, my head is dark and my heart feels sick/A Manitoba sunrise at another Motel 6.” The CD ends with another mellow, thoughtful and engaging number, “Good Man.” “You don’t see me/Sometimes you don’t see me/The way I wish you would.”

CD Track List
  1. Stay Outta My Business
  2. Bananas
  3. Diamond Ring
  4. A Woman’s Pain
  5. Devil In A Dress
  6. One Thought Of You
  7. Miss Jones
  8. Smoking Gun
  9. Kitty Cat
  10. Manitoba Sunrise At Motel 6
  11. Good Man 
Sassafrass! is scheduled to be released on CD on June 1, 2018. By the way, apparently there is also a limited vinyl pressing, on green vinyl. I love colored vinyl, so I might have to pick up another copy of this album.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Lucky Losers: “Blind Spot” (2018) CD Review

The Lucky Losers are a bluesy, soulful and fun band based in San Francisco. At the heart of this group are the two lead vocalists, Cathy Lemons and Phil Berkowitz, who wrote (with Danny Caron) all the songs on the new album, Blind Spot. They swap lead vocal duties, with Cathy singing lead on all the songs that she co-wrote, and Phil singing lead on the songs he co-wrote. The album title refers to the spot you can’t see in the rear-view mirrors, the dangerous spot, and in these songs there certainly is an element of danger, of the unknown. But the tracks are largely a lot of fun, and some of them would be good choices to accompany you on a road trip, mentioning highways and destinations and so on. This album follows 2016’s In Any Town, and unlike that one and the group’s debut (A Winning Hand), this disc contains all original material. In addition to Cathy Lemons and Phil Berkowitz, the group is made up of Ian Lamson on guitar, Chris Burns on keys, Endre Tarczy on bass, and Robi Bean on drums. There are also several guest musicians joining them on certain tracks.

They kick off the new CD with “It’s Never Too Early,” written by Phil Berkowitz and Danny Caron. I could, as always, do without the rain sound effect at the beginning. But once the song actually starts, it’s really good and features a very cool, classic groove. There are plenty of lines that stand out, such as “It’s never too early to sleep/When you’re living in a dream,” the first lines of the song. And check out these lines: “Straight ahead until we’re dead/There ain’t no looking back/The path to your heart has been heavy/But it’s got a strong foundation/All roads will lead me back to you/If there is no hesitation.” Oh yes. There is some nice work on keys, plus good stuff by Phil Berkowitz on harmonica. I just love the overall feel of this one, sounding like a band singing directly to you from the side of the road as you travel through a slightly strange landscape in a time all its own. It’s marred only by the “self”/“shelf” rhyme near the end, and a return to the rain sound effect. That’s followed by “Take The Long Road,” a bluesy tune written by Cathy Lemons and Danny Caron. “Nobody gave me nothing, that’s a fact/I had to pull myself out of a ditch with a knife in my back.” How’s that for a good blues lyric? There is also a dance element to this song, with a bit of a disco vibe to the rhythm. And there is more nice work on harmonica.

“Alligator Baptism” is fun, and it too has something of a dance vibe. It also has a whole lot of soul, plus a horn section, which is fantastic. The horns really add a great element to this song, taking it to another level. Nancy Wright and Jack Sanford play saxophone, and John Halbeib is on trumpet. “A little more soul, and lot less jive/What’s going to stop me from digging in too deep/Who’s to say what it takes to survive/Let the muse play the song for your soul to keep.” And I love that lead on harmonica in the second half of the song (I wish it went on a little longer). This track is really working on me and for me. It’s a song that might make you cooler just for listening to it. So there. And it’s followed by another seriously cool tune, “The River.” This one has a slower groove, with plenty of soul. Cathy Lemons wrote this one. “When you came/You reached your hand out/Said here I am/Now you’re holding me/I won’t let you/Sink in this old river.”

“Bulldogs & Angels” establishes a classic soul sound right from the start. It has kind of an easygoing feel, and I like the way Phil Berkowitz delivers the vocals. “Don’t know where I’m going/Don’t know what I’m going to do/But I’ll hold onto this feeling/’Til I find someone like you/To bring it on out.” And I dig those “ooh” backing vocals. And then two and a half minutes in, we get the addition of some gorgeous, joyful work on saxophone.  Ah, yes, it just gets better. That’s Nancy Wright on saxophone. The ending with saxophone and harmonica is fantastic! I also like “Last Ride.” It’s a more serious tune, with something of a harsher tone, with lyrics about some horrific recent events, including the Las Vegas shooting, as well as that church shooting that left twenty-six people dead. It disgusts me that there are people who are still against strict gun control. Kid Andersen plays rhythm guitar on this track. “It may the last ride, the last ride of our lives.”

“Love Is Blind” has a slow disco dance groove that kind of pulls you in. Cathy delivers a powerful, passionate vocal performance, which has something of a classic sound. “I wanted somebody/To be by my side/Now I feel no pleasure/Maybe it’s just my pride.” Kid Andersen plays lead guitar on this track. The CD then ends with a song that both Cathy and Phil co-wrote with Danny Caron, the only track that both singers had a hand in composing. Titled “You Left It Behind,” it is delightful right from the beginning, a playful duet about traveling together and forgetting things, in which they tease each other about moments that might very well be from the group’s actual history. “Baby, you remember that time we were in downtown Memphis, and you left your suitcase lying in the street?” It’s a shame that they bleep out the word “fuck” at the end when Cathy says “Oh, for fuck’s sake.” That is pretty lame. I think if for some reason they didn’t want to leave the word in, but didn’t want to cut the line entirely, then they should have had the harmonica suddenly come blaring in over it, like Phil is trying to keep Cathy from getting the last word.

CD Track List
  1. It’s Never Too Early
  2. Take The Long Road
  3. Alligator Baptism
  4. The River
  5. Supernatural Blues
  6. Make A Right Turn
  7. Bulldogs & Angels
  8. Last Ride
  9. Don’t Take Too Much
  10. Love Is Blind
  11. You Left It Behind 
Blind Spot is scheduled to be released on May 18, 2018 on Dirty Cat Records.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

I See Hawks In L.A.: “Live And Never Learn” (2018) CD Review

One of my absolute favorite bands in Los Angeles (or anywhere, for that matter) is I See Hawks In L.A. Part of the reason for that is Rob Waller’s voice, one of the best voices in music these days. It’s a voice that is friendly and wise, experienced, sometimes filled with joy, sometimes with sadness. Another part of the reason is the songwriting. These guys consistently write engaging, honest, and sometimes beautiful material. The band’s new album, Live And Never Learn, is a perfect example of that. All the tracks are originals, nearly an hour of excellent new material. It’s been nearly five years since the band’s last studio release, Mystery Drug. Can that be right? Wow, time is moving much too quickly. This album features the work of several guest musicians, including Richie Lawrence on accordion and piano, Dave Markowitz on fiddle, Danny McGough on organ and synthesizer, and Dave Zirbel on pedal steel.

The Hawks open this album with “Ballad For The Trees.” This is a group that often turns to ecological themes in its material, yet is able to refrain from preaching and to keep from letting messages overpower the music. A steady rhythm gives the song a kind of cheerful vibe from the start, and then when the vocals come in, the lyrics work almost in opposition to that feel. “Have we stripped ourselves of context/Are we drowning in the seas/The facts that come too easily/Friends we never see/Friends we never see.” But then it does rise in optimism. “Here’s a song for the Acacia/Here’s a song for honey bees/Here’s a song just for everyone writing down their dreams.” And we’re off to a great start. “Ballad For The Trees” is followed by “Live And Never Learn,” the album’s title track, which has more of a breezy country vibe. “Well, I try so hard to do what’s right/But that won’t get me through Friday night.” Then there is a surprising section toward the end, with the lyrics coming at you more quickly. “Every promise I knew I’d break/Every friend looks the other way/Every leap I never took/Halfway down, let’s take a look.”

As I mentioned, this band writes some damn good lyrics. In “White Cross,” Rob Waller sings “Good times didn’t suit me/I had to taste the pain” and “I know the angels love me/Even though I did them wrong.” This group conveys heartache so well, but also can provide good times. (I always feel seriously good when I see this band in concert.) Then, as if to prove that, they follow “White Cross” with a rockin’ number about getting stoned and watching Trading Places on a black and white TV, “Stoned With Melissa.” I love those backing vocals, which will likely remind you of early rock and roll and pop tunes. I also love the phrase “vacation from common sense.” Getting stoned is another theme the band does return to. But this song takes a turn and becomes a bit strange in the second half, slowing down and becoming less joyful, and it ends with some spoken word.

“Poour Me,” which was written by all four band members, has a great country sound, with Dave Zirbel adding some wonderful stuff on pedal steel. And it tackles one of those perennial country subjects: problems with drinking. The song opens with the line, “Poor me, poor me, pour me more wine.” Amen. The band approaches the subject with some humor, as in lines like “The eighties was his peak.” And it wouldn’t be an I See Hawks In L.A. album if there weren’t at least a few references to Los Angeles. This song mentions the 110 highway (which has a ridiculously dangerous stretch, with the shortest entrance ramps in existence, for those who haven’t driven this road). That’s followed by “Planet Earth.” This song is a mellow, thoughtful reflection on the state of things and our relation to it. Check out these lyrics: “Thought I saw a magical train/It was just a long shopping mall in the rain/From the corner of my eye to a wish in my brain/That turns a shopping mall into a train/It’s easy, so easy.”

“The Last Man In Tujunga” is a country rock and roll tune about both fire season in southern California and a break-up done over the phone. When he’s losing the signal, he sings “You’re breaking up and I’m losing you.” This one includes a nod to the Rolling Stones.  “My Parka Saved My Life,” which was written by all four band members, features drummer Victoria Jacobs on lead vocals. It’s a strange song, in which Victoria delivers the story as spoken word, and Rob Waller echoes the lines, but sings them. And then the rest of the band provides some wonderful backing vocals, turning the tale of a car accident caused by a drunk driver into something sweet and beautiful. And also funny. This song has me laughing out loud several times, like when Rob suddenly changes his role from echoing Victoria’s lines to adding some of his own, leading her to contradict him, “No, that’s not true.” Another funny moment is when Rob is singing “My parka, my parka, my parka” and Victoria amends the line, giving some new information, “It was my brother’s parka,” and immediately Rob changes his backing vocal line to “It was my brother’s parka.” Still, the song tells a rather serious tale, and ends up being one of my favorite tracks. Victoria Jacobs also provides vocals on the pretty “Spinning,” this time singing the lyrics, which she also wrote. “Spinning, spinning out of time.”

The title “King Of The Rosemead Boogie” does not mislead; this song is a boogie, the music sounding like something ZZ Top might have done in the late 1970s. The lyrics, however, are something else entirely. By the way, for those who don’t reside around here, Rosemead is a city in Los Angeles County. Then I really like the fiddle in “Tearing Me In Two.”  Fiddle is also prominent in “The Isolation Mountains,” a sweet-sounding folk song that is another of the disc’s highlights. “I was pleading with the stars/You turned your back on Mars/Our pillow was the river to the fields.” Am I completely mad, or does this song remind you just a bit of “The First Noel” at moments? The album then concludes with “Stop Me,” which has a light-hearted folk vibe. “I’m staring into the sun/Just want to have some fun/Just like the sweepstakes said/Maybe I’ve already won/Oh, stop me.”

CD Track List
  1. Ballad For The Trees
  2. Live And Never Learn
  3. White Cross
  4. Stoned With Melissa
  5. Poour Me
  6. Planet Earth
  7. The Last Man In Tujunga
  8. Singing In The Wind
  9. My Parka Saved Me
  10. King Of The Rosemead Boogie
  11. Tearing Me In Two
  12. Spinning
  13. The Isolation Mountains
  14. Stop Me
Live And Never Learn is scheduled to be released on June 29, 2018.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

John Wesley Harding: “Greatest Other People’s Hits” (2018) CD Review

John Wesley Harding (whose real name is Wesley Stace) has been putting out good albums since the late 1980s. Though known for his songwriting, he’s also covered other artists over the years. And on his new release, Greatest Other People’s Hits, he delivers a collection of covers of songs by artists as diverse as Pete Seeger, Lou Reed and Madonna. John Wesley Harding is joined by folks like The Minus Five and Bruce Springsteen on certain tracks. A lot of the tracks on this album were previously released on various compilations and singles. Hey, after all it’s (sort of) a greatest hits compilation. But there are also several previously unreleased tracks. This album was recently released on vinyl on Record Store Day, in a very limited pressing, and will soon be available on CD. The vinyl edition, by the way, does not include the entire album, which is more than hour long; it contains ten of the seventeen tracks.

He opens the album with “If You Have Ghosts,” a song written by Roky Erickson, and included on the 1981 Roky Erickson And The Aliens album, The Evil One. This version by John Wesley Harding was originally included on the 1990 tribute album Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye: A Tribute To Roky Erickson. It has a fun pop vibe. That’s followed by a song from another tribute album, this one a tribute to Pete Seeger titled If I Had A Song…The Songs Of Pete Seeger Vol. 2. The song is “Words Words Words,” the title of course reminding me of Hamlet, that scene between Hamlet and Polonius. This track is performed with The Minus Five, and has quite a different feel from Pete Seeger’s original, this one being much more in the pop realm. By the way, John Wesley Harding also collaborated with The Minus Five on 2009’s Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead.

John Wesley Harding includes two Bruce Springsteen songs on this release. Interestingly, both are from The River. The first is “Jackson Cage,” and this track too was originally included on a tribute album, One Step Up/Two Steps Back: The Songs Of Bruce Springsteen, which was released in 1997. John Wesley Harding’s rendition is more in the folk realm than the original, and features Carrie Bradley on violin, and Chris von Sneidern on bass. It’s a really nice rendition. The second Bruce Springsteen song in this collection is one that actually features Bruce on vocals and acoustic guitar. It is a live version of “Wreck On The Highway” performed at McCabe’s in 1994. John Wesley Harding and Bruce Springsteen are accompanied only by Robert Lloyd on accordion. It must have been something to be at that show! This track was previously included on Awake: The New Edition, which was released in 2000.

One of my favorite tracks is his rendition of “Story Teller,” written by Rainer Ptacek, and originally included on the expanded re-issue of The Inner Flame: A Tribute To Rainer Ptacek, released in 2012. On this track, he plays bouzouki. He is accompanied by Ferdy Doernberg, who plays dobro, lap steel and organ. It’s an excellent song, and one that I don’t think I was familiar with before this release. I love his vocal performance here. Another highlight is the wonderful rendition of “It’s Only Make Believe,” the classic Conway Twitty tune. It’s done as a duet with Kelly Hogan, and Robert Lloyd plays both accordion and mandolin. This was previously released on the compilation Making Singles Drinking Doubles in 2002. And yet another favorite is “Covered Up In Aces.” This song was written by Elizabeth Barraclough, who released it as a single in 1978 (it was also included on her self-titled debut LP). And on this track, she joins John Wesley Harding on both vocals and guitar, the song performed as a duet. It’s a beautiful rendition, somewhat mellower than the original. This track was previously included on The Devil In Me single.

“Old Bourbon,” a song written by Alun Davies, is one of the CD’s previously unreleased tracks. This one features Rick Moody on vocals. (Yes, the guy that wrote The Ice Storm.) It’s followed by another previously unreleased track, a version of The Strawbs’ “Benedictus,” written by David Cousins. On this track, Wesley provides the vocals, and Eric Bazilian plays all the instruments – guitar, bass, keyboard, mandola and drums. Oh, Eric also provides some vocals. Also previously unreleased is John Wesley Harding’s cover of George Harrison’s “Wah Wah.” This track features The Universal Thump, a band that has something of a history performing George Harrison’s music. On the fortieth anniversary of the release of All Things Must Pass, the album that includes “Wah Wah,” they hosted a celebration of that triple album. So it’s the perfect group to collaborate with on this track. (By the way, the article that I read about that concert was written by Rick Moody, just to draw another connection.) And it’s a really good rendition, feeling as full as the original, and does feature a horn section. By the way, the proceeds from this song go to George Harrison’s Material World Foundation.

This collection includes two Lou Reed songs. The first is a sweet version of “Think It Over,” another of the previously unreleased tracks, this one with Scott McCaughey joining him on organ and guitar. The second is “Satellite Of Love,” with Lou Reed himself joining him on vocals and electric guitar. Rob Wasserman plays bass on this track. Wasserman is one of the many excellent musicians we lost in the foul year of 2016, and is someone that is familiar to fans of the Grateful Dead. This track was recorded live in New York in 1994, and was previously included on Fan Club Single #4, released in 1995. This collection concludes with Madonna’s “Like A Prayer,” which John Wesley Harding performs solo.

CD Track List
  1. If You Have Ghosts
  2. Words Words Words
  3. Star
  4. Je Suis Venu Te Dire Que Je M’en Vais
  5. Jackson Cage
  6. Story Teller
  7. Need I Know
  8. It’s Only Make Believe
  9. Old Bourbon
  10. Benedictus
  11. Another Age
  12. Wah Wah
  13. Wreck On The Highway
  14. Covered Up In Aces
  15. Think It Over
  16. Satellite Of Love
  17. Like A Prayer 
Greatest Other People’s Hits is scheduled to be released on May 18, 2018 through Omnivore Recordings. By the way, if you are trying to figure out why the CD cover seems familiar, it is a play on the Abba Gold cover.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Shawn Maxwell’s New Tomorrow: “Music In My Mind” (2018) CD Review

Saxophonist Shawn Maxwell, based in Chicago, has released several albums under his own name, as well as the names Shawn Maxwell Quartet and Shawn Maxwell’s Alliance, and now Shawn Maxwell’s New Tomorrow. The first album under that name was the 2016 self-titled release. That is now being followed by Music In My Mind, featuring all original material, composed by Shawn Maxwell. A couple of these tracks are compositions that Shawn Maxwell included on earlier releases and is revisiting. Shawn Maxwell plays alto saxophone, clarinet and flute on this album. The other musicians include Matt Nelson on keys, Phil Beale on drums, Chad McCullough on trumpet and flugelhorn, Victor Garcia on trumpet and flugelhorn, Corey Wilkes on trumpet, Patrick Mulcahy on bass, Junius Paul on bass, Tim Seisser on bass, Stephen Lynerd on vibraphone, Kalyan Pathak on percussion, and Dee Alexander on vocals.

Music In My Mind opens with “Our Princess Is In Another Castle,” a delightful title for a delightful and strange tune, perhaps my favorite. There is a bit of New Orleans fun at the start, with some good work on percussion, mixed with elements of a big band about to explode into unknown territory. And then it slides into something else entirely, and that’s all within the first minute. This track features some wonderful vocal work by Dee Alexander – voice, but no lyrics. For a moment, it seems this tune is about to end, but then it returns to that first wild section, if only briefly. This tune feels like the score to a wonderfully demented trip. It gets into some strange territory, a gloriously contained and orchestrated chaos. I particularly love the work on drums, and how the horns rise up as many voices. That’s followed by the title track, “Music In My Mind,” which also features Dee Alexander on vocals, her voice feeling like it’s welcoming us to a dreamlike vacation. There is a mellow and pretty vibe at the start. A short bass solo by Junius Paul leads to another section. I love how this music is not afraid or timid; it goes in some unexpected directions, which I appreciate, especially right around the halfway mark. That section is delightfully demented, and I love it. The bass again leads to a different area. I enjoy the playful aspect of this tune.

The title “Maxwell’s House” is obviously a play on the name of that popular coffee (Is it still popular? I don’t drink coffee, so I don’t really know). This tune was also the title track from Shawn Maxwell Quartet’s 2009 release. This new version has a cool moment at the beginning, establishing the good rhythm before the horns come in. This track has a bright, cheerful vibe, particularly because of the work on horns, especially Shawn Maxwell’s work, and is a lot of fun. There is also some really nice stuff by Matt Nelson on keys, and more vocal work by Dee Alexander, blending with the horns. “King Bill” is another composition that Shawn Maxwell is revisiting. It originally appeared on his 2005 release, Originals, featuring a completely different band and a very different feel. This new version opens with some interesting and cool percussion, with the horn dancing over it. And then Shawn leads us into a different section, a delightful dance, like pixies alighting in a city alley where denizens of the night rise from the shadows to greet them by banging on trash can lids and whatever else is handy, creating a joyous, animated sound. I love this track. Kalyan Pathak is on percussion on this one.

When “Another Monday” opens, it feels like it’s already in progress, like a stressed out guy in morning traffic, his mind racing even if his car is not. Then it becomes a conversation between the horns, like they’re both commenting on the same thing, adding to each other’s thoughts. This is wonderful stuff, and this track includes some nice work on keys as well. This is another of the disc’s highlights. It’s followed by “Glamasue,” another composition that was originally included on Shawn Maxwell’s Originals. This one features some good, funky work by Tim Seisser on bass. The CD then concludes with “Snow Snow,” an easygoing, kind of relaxed tune featuring Corey Wilkes on trumpet.

CD Track List
  1. Our Princess Is In Another Castle
  2. Music In My Mind
  3. Untitled Tune #1
  4. Maxwell’s House
  5. Herding Happiness
  6. He Gone
  7. King Bill
  8. Another Monday
  9. Glamasue
  10. Snow Snow
Music In My Mind is scheduled to be released on May 18, 2018 on OA2 Records.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Ellis Paul at McCabe’s, 5-4-18 Concert Review

Ellis Paul performing "Straight To The Moon"
Ellis Paul is creating material for a new album, which should be finished later this year and released early next year. Apparently, there may be enough songs for a double album, which would be wonderful. And it looks like it will be released on vinyl, which is also good news for those of us who appreciate records (and there are a lot of us). Friday night he performed some of these new songs at McCabe’s in Santa Monica, along with some old favorites. Ellis did two sets, with no opener and no one accompanying him. It was an excellent show.

He started the first set just after 8 p.m., opening with what is arguably his best song, “Maria’s Beautiful Mess,” first breaking down the song into its components, showing how he can be a complete band on just the guitar, demonstrating the drum beat and the bass line that is incorporated into his guitar playing. “Imagine all the bail money I don’t have to carry,” he joked. “Maria’s Beautiful Mess” never fails to move me. It’s an excellent song with some wonderful lyrics. “And she steps close, her eyes glow/Lips pop open like a bottle of wine.” He then mentioned his upcoming album, which will be his twentieth. He started writing the new material by thinking of important days in his life. And then we got the first new song of the night, “The Innocence And The Afterlife,” about when his young daughter asked him about death. It’s a beautiful and effective song with some sweet humor in lines like “So my daughter says to me, ‘Well then, can I come back as a puppy?’/I said, yes, if what the Buddhists say is true/Then her tears came, her voice changed/She said, ‘If I came back as a puppy, would I belong to you?’”

When Ellis played the audience favorite “Kick Out The Lights,” the crowd was immediately on top of it, singing out their parts without needing much encouragement. And they sounded good. To two women in the front row he said, “I’m just trying not to sweat on you.” Then he added, “But maybe you’re into it, I don’t know.” He then treated us to another new one, “Five Alarm Fire On The 4th Of July,” a song about a family reunion in 1979. It has a lot of humorous lines like “Nobody died, but everyone was trying.” There is a nod to “We Are Family” at the end.

He mentioned the fundraising efforts for the new album, The Storyteller’s Suitcase, and showed a few of the things that folks who contribute will receive. Then he talked about vinyl, playing a Sam Cooke record on stage (the song was “Bring It On Home To Me,” which Ellis played a bit of during the soundcheck), and mentioned that the new album will be released on 180 gram vinyl. Ellis switched to the upright piano for “Scarecrow In A Corn Maze.” He told the crowd that during the set break, the audience could just roam around the store. “Just take whatever you like. That’s what I do. There’s so much shit in here, they’d never know what’s missing.” McCabe’s, for those who aren’t familiar with the place, is mainly a guitar shop, and in the evenings its large back room is transformed into a concert venue. He finished up the first set with “I Ain’t No Jesus” and “3,000 Miles.” The first set ended at 9 p.m.

The set break was exactly twenty minutes, and Ellis started the second set with “This Is Where All Good Trees Go,” a song about McCabe’s that he’s been playing at his shows there for several years. Last night’s version was quite short, without any new improvised lyrics. “That one was free,” Ellis joked afterward. He followed that with “Rose Tattoo,” playing harmonica on it. “If I ever lost you/I would be lost too.” When he introduced “Alice’s Champagne Palace,” a song about a bar in Alaska, two women in the front row responded, one saying she was about to travel there and another saying she is from there – the state, not the bar. “Alice’s Champagne Palace” has become another audience favorite, and he delivered a really good rendition on Friday. After that, he read “Thomas Edison” from The Hero In You.

Ellis then played a couple of new ones, starting with “The Storyteller’s Suitcase,” which will be the title track for the upcoming release. It’s so new, that he said he was still learning it, and he opened his book with the lyrics and left it at his feet. “This is a song about the life of a musician,” he said by way of introduction. “A song is just a skeleton key, it can open any palace door.” He kept his lyrics book opened for the next song as well, “Straight To The Moon,” at one point kneeling on the stage to get a better look, drawing laughter from the audience. “Straight To The Moon” is a completely delightful song, a song that will make you happy. “You stepped into my life/It’s crazy how I love waking up to you/Now my wandering days are through.”

During the set break, someone in the audience requested “God’s Promise,” and Ellis played it toward the end of the show. This song has lyrics written by Woody Guthrie, and music written by Ellis Paul. He momentarily forgot some of the lyrics, but still delivered a good rendition. He then concluded the second set with Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” the song that I argue should be our national anthem (with all its verses). Ellis performed this one unmiked in the middle of the audience. He did all but the final verse (the “Nobody living can ever stop me” verse), and the audience sang along with the chorus. The encore was “California,” which he performed on piano, with some added lyrics about McCabe’s. The show ended at 10:08 p.m.

Set List

Set I
  1. Maria’s Beautiful Mess
  2. The Innocence And The Afterlife
  3. Kick Out The Lights
  4. Five Alarm Fire On The 4th Of July
  5. Scarecrow In A Corn Maze
  6. I Ain’t No Jesus
  7. 3,000 Miles
 Set II
  1. This Is Where All Good Trees Go
  2. Rose Tattoo
  3. Alice’s Champagne Palace
  4. Thomas Edison
  5. The Storyteller’s Suitcase
  6. Straight To The Moon
  7. God’s Promise
  8. This Land Is Your Land
  1. California
"Scarecrow In A Corn Maze"

 McCabe’s is located at 3101 Pico Blvd. in Santa Monica, California.