Archive for the ‘blues’ Category

Album Review: R.L. Burnside — Too Bad Jim

Thursday, October 30th, 2014

Here’s something that can be described as the sweet spot in a Venn diagram charting a curiosity, a history lesson, and an authentic modern-day reading of country blues. R.L. Burnside‘s Too Bad Jim – newly reissued on vinyl; more about that presently – sounds for all the world like a classic country blues session, the kind of thing Alan Lomax might have captured for the Smithsonian decades ago. Burnside’s delivery – vocal and guitar – is deeply redolent of Mississippi delta bluesmen of old (most notably Fred McDowell), but the production values are positively 21st century.

Which isn’t to say that Too Bad Jim has been gimmicked-up, akin to some sort of White Stripes dilettantism. No, Burnside is indeed the real deal. His blues tunes are true to the spirit of those old field recordings in that his blues is not confined to modern/commercial notions of how long each verse should be. In that he shares a sensibility with artists such as John Lee Hooker: Burnside uses the blues form more as a jumping off point than as a framework. He’s a bluesman, to be sure, but he bends the form to suit his needs. His electrified approach is supported on Too Bad Jim by the sparest of backing: this 1993 recording finds him joined only by bass and drums. Not only is their contribution simple and basic – keeping the spotlight where it belongs – but it’s relatively low in the mix.

And by “mix” I don’t wish to imply that Too Bad Jim has the sound of a multi-track studio recording. The sound is crystal clear and uncluttered, but it very much has the feel of one mic hanging from the ceiling (alongside perhaps a lone, naked incandescent lightbulb). There’s a late-night feel to the ten tracks on Too Bad Jim; that vibe pervades Burnside’s mix of originals, traditional numbers, and a cover of Hooker’s “When My First Life Left Me.” His original numbers – take “Short Haired Woman” for as good an example as any – could have been written ninety years ago, but in Burnside’s capable hands, the songs are timeless. His singing and playing is in turns heartfelt, impassioned, assured, and it’s always authentic.

Too Bad Jim was originally issued on the venerable Fat Possum label. A new subscription service called Vinyl Me Please featured Burnside’s second and highly regarded album as its October 2014 selection. Thick, sturdy heavyweight vinyl is packaged in a higher-gauge cardboard sleeve, along with a download card giving purchasers access to 320kbps (read: high quality) MP3 files. A nice foldout poster will evoke warm memories among those who came of age in vinyl’s 1970s heyday. As part of Vinyl Me Please’s good-natured approach, the package for Too Bad Jim also includes a recipe card for a relevant cocktail, in this case a variation on the Bloody Mary, one that was reputedly a favorite of Burnside’s.

With its monthly offerings, the Vinyl Me Please catalog explores a wide array of genres; the only unifying characteristic seems to be high quality.

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DVD Review: BB King — The Life of Riley

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

I know people who argue that – as a creative work – the music documentary is dead. They point out that the medium has become a rote retreading of tired techniques; that every possible clever, creative or even interesting method of telling a story onscreen has been beaten to death, leaving only the shell of a concept in its wake.

I understand what they mean. It’s nigh upon impossible to find a music documentary that doesn’t have these four things:

  1. Character actors “reenact” the musician’s early years while stock audio (that evokes the style of the subject matter without having to actually, y’know, pay royalties for using the actual music) plays in the background
  2. Post-production digital gimmicks like “fake scratched 16mm film” or “fake sepia tinting” or “fake [insert any of the myriad effects]”
  3. Bono, and possibly Dave Grohl
  4. Narration by Morgan Freeman.

Okay, I overstate things a bit here, both to make a point and possibly elicit a small chuckle. But the fact remains that – like the book says – when it comes to music documentaries, it often seems as if there’s nothing new under the sun.

Jon Brewer‘s new documentary B.B. King: The Life of Riley falls into many of these traps: it has the actors, the post-production, U2‘s ubiquitous lead singer, and Freeman (the last as both off-screen narrator and onscreen “talking head”). But despite its often rote approach, The Life of Riley transcends cliché. This is no doubt thanks to its subject matter. B.B. King is very much the real deal, and so even when tired devices are used to chronicle his life, the substance wins out over the style.

Throughout the film, Brewer’s approach seems to be chronological, but a close watch shows that the narrative often jumps forward and backward in the timeline, in service of the mini-narrative being explored. As much is left out of the story as is put in, and the viewer likely comes away feeling that they haven’t been told the whole story. (For example, we’re left wondering if he’s still married to Sue Carol Hall; he’s not). And his monumental, historic 1974 concert in Africa deserves more than the cursory mention it gets in the film. But in the absence of any other career-spanning look at King, The Life of Riley is what we have. And in the wake of King’s very recent suspension of his tour (for health reasons; he’s currently 89 years of age), now is the perfect time for such a film to appear.

In Brewer’s defense, The Life of Riley is perhaps the only music documentary in which the inescapable likeness and voice of Bono does truly deserve its place in the film. U2 toured and performed with King, and their “When Love Comes to Town” (featuring King on vocals and guitar) is one of the better pieces of music they’ve produced. (It’s less clear, however, why Bruce Willis gets screen time, but we’ll leave that one for another day.) And despite the fact that having Freeman narrate your film has become tired even as a joke device, the man’s clear yet laconic cadence is an excellent vehicle for narration.

As portrayed in The Life of Riley, King is painted as something of a good-natured rascal, one who always has a smile but whom you’d best not cross; it seems once he achieved success, he invariably (and inviolably) got his way. Fair enough: if any musician can be said to have paid his dues, King – who came from indisputably hardscrabble beginnings – is that man.

Music fans will come away from The Life of Riley wishing there was more in the way of performance clips in the film. But for that, there’s always King’s deep catalog of music. His most recent album is the Grammy-winning One Kind Favor; I reviewed it on release way back in 2008.

In the end, unlike its subject matter, The Life of Riley doesn’t yield anything that’s groundbreaking or especially inspiring. It’s perhaps only a small notch above an A&E Biography TV special (do they even make those any more?), but it remains worthwhile viewing.

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Honeymoon Hundred-word Reviews, Part 4

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

I’m on my honeymoon this week, so I thought it would be a good time to offer up some backlog-clearing entries in my occasional series of Hundred Word Reviews. And though the musical styles are all over the map, there’s a theme of sorts this time: each of the acts reviewed has been covered previously, either via review or feature/interview.

Today’s three reviews look at new music from American artists.


Lucky Peterson – I’m Back Again
On his 2010 album You Can Always Turn Around, Peterson displayed his prowess on vocals and the duolian resonator guitar; this new set shows his power onstage in front of an appreciative crowd. Backed by a crack blues trio, Peterson shows this Berlin audience that he can tear things up on Hammond B3 as well. In addition to standards, he takes on Ray LaMontagne‘s “Trouble” and a few original numbers. He may sport the nickname, but listening to this CD suggests that it was the people in the audience at the 55 Arts Club who were truly the lucky ones.


Backhouse Lily – Stand the Rain
As with their previous release, the duo calling themselves Backhouse Lily creates music that seems to have more instruments than are actually present. This album is a bit more groove-oriented than their last, but the bass-and-drums configuration is no gimmick; it’s merely what they do. To classify this in a narrow genre would do it a disservice; instead I’ll note that listeners who enjoy the melodic yet adventurous side of modern rock (say, Porcupine Tree) may well enjoy Stand the Rain. The music on this instro set in turns rocks hard and grooves, and it’s never too clever for itself.


The Brian Jonestown Massacre – Revelation
New music from Anton Newcombe‘s retro-minded Brian Jonestown Massacre is always welcome here at Musoscribe. Unlike some other modern psych bands (Black Angels, for example), BJM takes The Rolling Stones‘ oft-maligned Their Satanic Majesties Request as their jumping off point. The results are equal parts dark and catchy. There’s a garage-y, slipshod/scuzzy vibe at work on Revelation, and that’s a very, very good thing. Things kick off with the hypnotic “Van Hande Med Dem? (possibly “What Happened to Them?”) and the level of quality stays high. Some of the sax work recalls early Psychedelic Furs; lots of depth found here.

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Hundred Word Reviews for August 2014, Part 4

Thursday, August 14th, 2014

This set of five 100-word reviews focuses on new music, some of which is from familiar names; others might be new to you. All are worthwhile and enthusiastically recommended.


Murali Coryell – Restless Mind
This son of legendary fusion guitarist Larry Coryell is charting a musical path quite different from his dad: he plays tasty blues with a clear melodic rock sensibility and a well-developed playful sense of humor (see the Sammy Hagar-ish “Sex Maniac”). Fans of Robert Cray and Eric Johnson will dig this well-produced (but not slick) album. Not as fiery as Steve Ray Vaughan, this guitarist prefers the slow burn. The disc features a nice cover of Marvin Gaye‘s “Let’s Get it On.” Bonus points to Coryell for titling his album with a sly reference to one of his pop’s records.


Worldline – Compass Sky
Compass Sky is the kind of music they rarely make any more. Worldline creates alluring melodies with that hint of melancholy you might find in a Pink Floyd record (or a Porcupine Tree CD). Brian Turner‘s synth lines don’t aim to dazzle as much as they help carry the song along, and Andrew Schatzberg‘s strong vocals bear the influence of most any great band of the 70s you can think of, but they’re more classic (in a good way) than retro. The record’s strong start to finish. They’re from my hometown (Asheville) but sadly I’ve yet to see them live.


The Verve Pipe – Overboard
I can almost hear you thinking, “weren’t these guys a 90s band?” Yes: they scored a few chart singles in the second half of that decade, but haven’t charted since 2001. As is too often the case, the music is better than the chart performance suggests. While the album artwork is derivative (Storm Thorgerson? Bill EvansUndercurrent?), the music is fresh. Only leader/producer/songwriter Brian Vander Ark remains from the 1990s lineup. Their breezy, heartland-styled rock is vaguely reminiscent of fellow midwesterners Semisonic; the melancholy “Crash Landing” is nearly anthemic in its arrangement, but there’s lots of varied texture throughout. Recommended.


Global Noize – Sly Reimagined: The Music of Sly and The Family Stone
Sylvester Stewart didn’t fare too well on his most recent comeback/self-tribute, but there’s no denying the strength of his 1967-73 material. This aggregation, put together by producer/keyboardist Jason Miles, shows the enduring power of Stone’s songs, interpreted here for modern audiences by a long list of players. The marquee names here are Family Stone drummer Greg Errico (on four cuts), Nona Hendryx (lead vocal on three cuts), Roberta Flack (sultry vocals on “It’s a Family Affair”) and – for the young folks – turntablist DJ Logic. Sly Reimagined is the next best thing to the originals, and that’s saying something.


Ian McLagan & the Bump Band – United States
Former Small Faces and Rolling Stones keyboardist Ian McLagan told me about this forthcoming album last year when I interviewed him about the Small Faces box set. Long having relocated to Austin TX, London-born McLagan shows influence of American musical forms more than British ones. A New Orleans flavor is shot through his bluesy tunes; using the widest interpretation of the term, the music on United States can reasonably be termed Americana. Mac’s always-engaging keyboard work (acoustic and electric pianos, organ) are the highlight but never steal the show: this really is a band, not some guy with faceless sidemen.

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Hundred Word Reviews for August 2014, Part 1

Monday, August 11th, 2014

Some familiar names and some true obscurities are highlighted in this, the first of five sets of five capsule reviews. This week I’ll review 25 albums, arbitrarily limiting myself to exactly one hundred words each.


Gene Rains – Far Away Lands: The Exotic Music of Gene Rains
Exotica – that early 60s genre featuring wide-panned stereo, vibes, “jungle” percussion and all manner of whoops, bird calls and such – was a big seller; the genre’s two primary exponents were Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman. The lesser-known Gene Rains cut three albums that are in the same league; all are long out of print and rare. This new compilation from Real Gone Music collects the best from those LPs, and adds an excellent new liner note essay from Randy Poe (and a lovely cheesecake cover featuring MeduSirena). This disc should be considered essential for fans of the genre.


Pete Seeger – Sing Out America! The Best of Pete Seeger
There seem to have been at least sixty compilations that have attempted to provide some sort of overview to the musical legacy of folk master and American treasure Pete Seeger. Some are long out of print; other remain available. Well, here’s another one. Sing Out America! features fifty tracks, variously credited to The Almanac Singers (an aggregation that also included Woody Guthrie), The Weavers, and Seeger solo. One can’t assail the quality of the music herein, but lack of liner notes and/or discographical info (recording date?) means that this set is a great listen, but unsatisfying as a historical document.


Peggy Lipton – The Complete Ode Recordings
Those of a certain age remember Peggy Lipton as a star of TV’s The Mod Squad (“One black, one white…one blonde!”). But they may well be surprised to learn Lipton had a recording career. And unlike some artists-turned-singers (see: Clint Eastwood), the recordings Lipton released on her self-titled 1968 LP and a handful of later singles show her to be a commanding vocalist. The nineteen tasteful Lou Adler-produced sides (including four previously-unreleased songs) owe a lot to the Laura Nyro school. Lipton composed a number of the tunes, and they hold up nicely alongside readings of classics like “Stoney End.”


Eric Clapton – Behind the Sun
Some insist that Eric Clapton should have hung up his guitar after 1970′s Layla and Assorted Other Love Songs. Clapton didn’t often rock very hard after that (the brief Cream reunion notwithstanding). This 1985 album – newly reissued on SACD – has its rocking moments, though it more often veers toward breezy, easy listening. Behind the Sun is easily identified as a product of its era: Simmons drum sounds abound; prominent synthesizer sounds are equally dated. In places it’s reminiscent of Roger Waters‘ 1984 The Pro and Cons of Hitchhiking (on which Clapton played). Not bad, but definitely not great.


Various Artists – Chicago Bound: Chess Blues, R&B and Rock ‘n’ Roll
England-based Fantastic Voyage has carved an excellent niche in the world of compilation albums. Their thoughtful collections have provided tidy surveys of long-lost music, more often than not from the USA. The legendary Chess label was home to a staggering list of classic artists, and this 3CD set brings together some of the best sides from artists including Sonny Boy Williamson, Chuck Berry, and Muddy Waters. It also highlights the work of lesser-known acts including J. B. Lenoir (“Eisenhower Blues”) and Bobby Saxton (“Trying to Make a Living”). Chicago Bound is up to Fantastic Voyage’s typical high level of quality.

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Album Review: Eric Clapton – Unplugged (CD+DVD)

Friday, July 18th, 2014

Here’s a slightly unusual candidate for reissue: Eric Clapton‘s 1992 Unplugged album. To my knowledge, this massively commercially successful album has never gone out of print, which begs the question: why reissue it? To be fair, this 2014 reissue does include some bonus material. But first, let’s take a look at the original album.

Filmed – as was standard procedure for the cable series MTV Unplugged – in front of a small audience and featuring more-or-less acoustic readings of the artist’s work, Clapton’s Unplugged came pretty far into the whole “unplugged” story arc. The TV series had begin its life as a Jules Shear-hosted show with all manner of musical guests. Artists would render stripped-down, often more subtle versions of their (generally) well-known material. Beginning in late 1989, MTV Unplugged began airing, and by 1991 at least a couple of major stars had not only appeared, but had subsequently released live recordings documenting their performances: Paul McCartney‘s Unplugged (The Official Bootleg) and Mariah Carey‘s single cover of the Jackson 5‘s “I’ll Be there.” So by the time of Clapton’s Unplugged date, the idea was certainly neither new nor groundbreaking.

And by this point in Clapton’s career, his style had calmed considerably from the days of Derek and the DominosLayla and Other Assorted Love Songs (not to mention Cream), so the mellow approach was no significant stylistic departure for him.

Still, Clapton – joined by longtime musical associates including percussionist Ray Cooper, keyboardist Chuck Leavell and guitarist Andy Fairweather-Low – used the format to explore his love of the more acoustic-leaning “country blues” sounds that had long been a major influence on his playing. The result was a set heavy on covers (some might call them standards), with a few contemporary originals tossed into the mix. For his trouble, Clapton’s Unplugged LP scored him more than 10 million units sold, plus six Grammy awards.

The album’s most memorable cuts are a version of “Tears in Heaven,” the song about the tragic loss of Clapton’s son Conor, and a reinvention of “Layla” that bizarrely denudes the tune of its passion (and its classic extended instrumental coda), though it remains popular in many corners.

The new set expands the original album and offers three discs total. The first is an exact duplicate of the original 1992 CD, featuring fourteen songs form the television performance. The second disc features material recorded but not aired as part of the TV program, including three numbers (“Circus” and “Worried Life Blues” plus two takes of the unaired “My Father’s Eyes”) not broadcast, and four alternate takes/breakdowns of songs that did appear. A third disc (DVD) features the entire program as broadcast, plus an hour of previously unseen footage. None of the previously-unseen/unheard material is especially revelatory; they’re all very much of a piece. The booklet that accompanies the digipak is short on details; the opportunity to feature a contemporary essay on the performance has been passed up. And the cover art again features the grainy, “screen capture”-looking photo that graced the original release.

Verdict: good for Clapton fans who somehow don’t already have the lion’s share of this material on CD and DVD (or perhaps VHS); worthy of interest for most others, but not an essential purchase.

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In Memoriam: Johnny Winter, 1944-2014

Thursday, July 17th, 2014

According to his publicist, legendary guitarist John Dawson Winter III died on July 15 in his Zurich, Switzerland hotel room.

I count myself lucky to have interviewed Johnny Winter twice (please see the list of links at bottom of this essay), and to have seen him play onstage once. I know very little about albinism, but what little I have read suggests that those with the condition tend to have a shorter life expectancy than the general population. And the same is true of junkies; though Johnny was a great talent, nobody will deny that he was hooked on hard drugs for a major portion of his life. Those two facts taken together make it all the more remarkable that the Beaumont, TX-born guitarist made it past his 70th birthday.

In his last decade or so, Johnny really did turn things around. The stories I heard strongly suggested that he had been at the mercy of manipulative and exploitative management for many years. But my the time I first connected with him (2007) he had hooked up with Paul Nelson, who served as his manger and second guitarist. Nelson worked with Johnny to reassert control over parts of his catalog, and was clearly a very positive figure in Winter’s life and career.

The qualities that came through to me about the man were his forthrightness and his taciturn nature. Even though Nelson had warned me in advance (“Hit him hard,” he coached me in advance of my first interview with Johnny), I found myself unable to get much out of the guitarist. If there were any conceivable way to answer one of my questions with a single word – usually “yup” or “nope” – Johnny would find it.

I did manage to draw him out a bit in our first talk, enough to have him tell me about the time he had a date with one Janis Joplin; they went to see Candice Bergen‘s Myra Breckenridge in a movie house. But the cliché “He prefers to let the music do the talking” may as well have been written to describe Johnny Winter.

When we spoke again in 2011 about his involvement with the latest “comeback” album from Sly Stone, he made it clear that he – like everyone else associated with the project – had never met the enigmatic artist. Though he never came right out and said it, the clear implication was that Winter’s guitar playing on one of Stone’s tracks was just a job, nothing more.

That certainly wasn’t true of Johnny Winter’s rock and blues recordings released under his own name. Even when his health was poor and he was (reportedly) being exploited by those close to him, the music rarely suffered. His Alligator releases of the 1980s have worn well, and are happily free (for the most part) of the era’s production/arrangement clichés. And of course his output in the 1970s is virtually without peer. My favorite of all his recordings are a pair of tracks form his 1978 LP White, Hot and Blue: “Walking By Myself” and the Junior Wells standard “Messin’ with the Kid.” On both of these Johnny is joined by a second guitarist, freeing Winter to spit out blistering solos. And that –along with Winter’s growling vocals – is what draws people to Winter’s music.

I didn’t manage to meet Johnny in person when he played Asheville’s Orange Peel in 2007, but I did manage to snap a number of photos. As my own tribute to the man and his music, I’m sharing a few of these below. With the exception of the one in which he’s seated at the front of the stage (with the “Bar” neon sign clearly visible behind him), these are all previously unpublished shots form my private collection.

At the close of our first interview, I thanked Johnny for taking the time to speak with me, and made a point – as I often do – to thank him for his music. I thank him again and send positive thoughts to those – his band mates, business associates and his wife – that he leaves behind.

For more of my writings on Johnny Winter, feel free to explore these links:

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Short Cuts: July Mini-reviews Part Three

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

Here are three more shortish reviews, this time all new releases.

Randy Jackson – Empathy for the Walrus
As a rule, I’m rather wary of tribute albums. More often than not, they’re bereft of original ideas, and too reverent by half. And when they’re not, they seem likely to miss what was/is important about the subject of the tribute, and instead use the opportunity to press their own identity onto the songs of a (generally superior) composer.

Thing is, those truths (I call ‘em like I hear ‘em) mean that the exceptions end up being pretty special. And here, I am pleased to report, is one of those. Randy Jackson (not the jazz bassist/American Idol guy, and not Michael Jackson‘s little brother) was and remains leader of rock band Zebra (you may recall their 1983′s “Who’s Behind the Door,” an excellent AOR rock single of the era, no mean feat). And on his new solo album Empathy for the Walrus, Jackson takes a relatively unique approach and applies it to the peerless catalog of The Beatles.

Armed only with acoustic guitars (most of ‘em sound like 12-strings) and his voice, he runs through some of the best Beatles tunes from the later half of their career arc. Jackson allows himself virtually unlimited overdubs on these arrangements, but all he adds are more guitars and more vocals. And more, and more.

The results are nothing short of stunning. His deeply textured, percussive style on the guitars and his strong voice both lend themselves to this multi-layered technique. Here, Jackson favors John Lennon‘s compositions ever so slightly over those of Paul McCartney, but they both get the Jackson treatment. (so does George Harrison, on “Something.”) Drawing from the best cuts you’d find on Beatles 1967-1970 (the “blue” album) and throwing in a few from outside that era – “Norwegian Wood” and, wait for it, “Free As a Bird” – Jackson highlights both the strength of the songs (melody and lyrics) and his own strengths as player, singer and interpreter. Even the songs that were originally light on guitar (the Abbey Road suite in particular) come off well in Randy Jackson’s capable hands. Highly recommended, even to those who might be put off by the overall concept.

Hard Swimmin’ Fish – One Step Forward
When I hear or read the name Mitch Easter, thoughts of a certain kind of music fill my head. The Winston-Salem-based producer/musician was a key part of the success of R.E.M., The dB’s and his own band, Let’s Active. And that’s only naming three from a much longer list. And while all those bands had/have their own sonic personality, they do share a certain sensibility.

All of this makes Hard Swimmin’ Fish‘s One Step Forward a bit unexpected. This electric blues quartet from Frederick, Maryland plays a swinging style of blues that relies on the sonic textures found in hollowbody electric guitar, snare-centric drumming, solid doghouse bass playing, overdriven harp wailing and soulful vocals. And none of that has anything to do with producer Mitch Easter.

At least I didn’t think so until I heard One Step Forward. The brief band-penned liner notes explain that the band generally employs a DIY approach, but that this time ’round they wanted something different. I haven’t heard any of their earlier self-produced material, but one listen to the album makes it clear that Easter knew what to do: set up the mics, get the levels, and then get the hell out of the way. And if that’s not how it went down, it’s how it sounds. The production never calls attention to itself.

The band’s twelve tunes (mostly originals with a few standards mixed in) are successful at holding interest while remaining safely within the (occasionally restrictive) blues idiom. The album highlight is “Hear Your Mama Calling” with its extended blistering lead guitar solo, but all the tracks are good. They swing, they swagger, they deliver.

Supersuckers – Get the Hell
From the moment I heard the opening air-raid-siren that leads into the crashing title track, I knew I wanted to review Get the Hell. Imagine the best characteristics of 70s, 80s and even 90s heavy rock. Now subtract all the artifice and posing. Not left with much, you say? I beg to differ. The howling, growling delivery on this, the nineteenth(!) album from this quartet, proves once again that there’s plenty of life left in the hard rock idiom.

They call themselves the “Greatest Rock’n'Roll Band in the World,” and even if you might dispute that claim, there’s no denying that The Supersuckers play as if they’ve won the title and have to fight to keep it. Look elsewhere for subtlety; cast your ears in another direction for nuance. The thirteen tunes on Get the Hell rock, and they rock hard. Vocalist/bassist Eddie Spaghetti shouts his snarly, leering lyrics while the rest of the band pummels along in an unrelenting yet always tuneful manner.

The song titles tell the story: “Disaster Bastard,” “Bein’ Bad,” “Shut Your Face,” “Rock On.” If you fret that all today’s hard rock is retreads and posturing, get the hell over to a record store and get Get the Hell. It’ll cure what ails ya.

Still more “short cuts” to come.

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Album Review: Bobby Rush — Decisions

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

An authentic blues album is a rare thing in 2014. Maybe it’s a function of modern recording techniques; I don’t know the reason. But most attempts at capturing the blues in the context of a recording session end up feeling and sounding sterile and lifeless, rote and unimaginative.

The good news is that the current state of blues releases has the effect of shining a brighter light on those albums that truly do rise above. And that’s the case with Decisions, the new CD+DVD release from Bobby Rush. Ably backed by the seasoned party band Blinddog Smokin’ (Chicago Chuck Gullens on drums, bassist Roland Pritzker, Mo Beeks on keyboards, guitarist Robert “Chalo” Ortiz, and vocalist Carl Gustafson out front) plus assorted studio cats on additional guitars, saxophones and whatnot, Rush delivers his soulful vocals in a style that laid back enough to convey the I-got-this attitude without breaking a sweat.

Dr. John (Mac Rebbenack) shares lead vocal duties with Rush on one tune, the album opener “Another Murder in New Orleans.” And while the album packaging makes a bit too much of this single-track collaboration (“Featuring the Legendary Dr. John” is emblazoned on the cover artwork, and a great photo of the duo serves as the booklet’s cover), the tune will leave listeners wanting more from these two grizzled veterans of music.

In fact, the Gustafson-penned “Another Murder in New Orleans” fits smoothly into the sonic space of the album overall. Rush composed five of the album’s ten tracks, including the smoky title song. And he has a sympathetic foil in Gustafson, the writer (either solo or with others) of Decisions‘ other tracks. Gustafson included two numbers written to be autobiographical (sic) tunes, and their titles make clear their subjects: “Bobby Rush’s Bus” purports to tell the story of “nineteen years on the road” with Rush, and an announcer lets us know who’s taking each of the four solos. And the wry and comical “Dr. Rush” casts Bobby as a radio call-in advice resource.

In fact, nearly all of the tracks on Decisions aim for a slice-of Bobby’s-life vibe, and those slices are upbeat and grin-inducing. “Too Much Weekend” tells the story of the Monday-morning effects of a weekend of over-stimulation. Full of stabbing horn chart work, “Funky Old Man” implores the listener to do a new dance called the “Fred Sanford.”

Elsewhere, “Love of a Woman” mines well-worn lyrical territory familiar to any blues fan, and “If That’s the Way You Like It I Like It” is sung in the voice of a man who will seemingly put up with anything to keep his woman. And “Stand Back” folds in some Cuban salsa elements, answering the unasked question: What would Santana‘s “Smooth” sound like with Bobby Rush out front instead of that Matchbox 20 guy?

The included DVD features a video for “Another Murder in New Orleans” featuring Rush onstage with the band at One Eyed Jack’s, with Dr. John on piano and vocal. Some clever, highly stylized animation and handheld street-scenes camera work, adds interest, though the black-and-white narrative sections are perhaps a bit too literal. But overall, it’s an exceedingly well done clip. A brief interview of sorts with Dr. John is interesting, but the intercut footage of Rush sitting on a stool in the studio doing some solo blues with only his voice and harmonic is worth seeing.

Rush’s previous album — 2013′s Down in Louisiana – earned a Blues Music Award for “Soul Blues Album of the Year,” and since Decisions is every bit as good, it will be worth watching to see if this new album gets similar notices.

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Album Review: The Butterfield Blues Band — East-West

Monday, May 19th, 2014

Some people — musicians, listeners, you name it — get their nose out of joint when writers apply labels to music. How dare we, the thinking goes. The music shouldn’t be shoehorned into some reviewer’s preconceived notion of stylistic categories.

I’m guilty as charged of said pigeonholing, and I make no apologies. I see part of my responsibility (to anyone who reads my reviews) as being a sort of consumer guide. You, gentle reader, are too busy to sift through the endless stream of new music that is created daily. (Hell, so am I.) By providing a signpost or two, I can (if I’m successful) help you decide if a given release is worth your further investigation. The application of a label — folk-rock. prog-metal, Christian rap (okay, you won’t find me writing about the last of those) — is a quick and handy device, if not overused.

Way, way back in 1966, there weren’t as many labels. But by virtue of their stylistic complexity, some bands forced the creation of new labels. So while The Butterfield Blues Band’s name might have suggested one very straightforward thing to potential listeners, the music on East-West telegraphed something much more finely nuanced. The album title was the first clue.

There’s plenty of straight-ahead electric blues and blues-rock here, and the approach that the BBB used on East-West paved the way for countless bands who’d come later (The Allman Brothers Band comes to mind). “All these Blues” and “Get out Of My Life, Woman” are exemplars of an electrically-charged Chicago style of the blues. This was a mixed-race band, still a rarity in ‘66: Sly & the Family Stone and Love were two of the small handful of mixed bands of that era. And that quality probably added to the musical breadth that the band was able to display.

East-West would merely be an excellent album were it not for the inclusion of the title track, the last on the album (newly reissued on hybrid SACD in numbered editions). “East-West” is the reason the writers had to sharpen their pencils and try and come up with a new label. Raga-jazz-blues-rock? Who the hell knows? All that’s certain is that “East-West” is thirteen-plus of the most exciting minutes in 1960s music, full of guitar interplay that draws as much from modal and “Eastern” styles as it does from the blues. This album transcends, redefines the blues. East-West is an essential part of any comprehensive music collection. If you don’t already have it, pick this one up.

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