Hello, My Treacherous Friends. Good to see you back here.
What a week this was for new music. Almost everything I got to review this week was brand new to me, including most of the acts themselves. Not only that, but with the exception of a couple less-than-stellar selections, every CD this week was killer. There are a couple singles in the mix, so I managed eleven new reviews this week. Let’s get to them.
Shelby Lynne, 2000 – I Am Shelby Lynne
I was expecting a country album, but I’m surprised right out the gate. I don’t know much about Shelby Lynne, but I’d always thought she was a country singer. First song on the disc, “Your Lies” is a full-throated retro rocker with ‘60s soul overtones. It veers so far from what I expected that I’m momentarily taken aback and making sure I have the right CD. Then the second track, “Leavin’” kicks in and again delves into that classic soul sound, complete with spoken bits, female back up singers, and a string section. It’s pretty amazing. What it’s not is country.
“Life Is Bad” is a bluesy rock number with a stomp-clap beat and some nice slide guitar. This song contains the first hints of country music on the album but no one would ever mistake Shelby Lynne for Loretta Lynn. The primary revelation that’s emerging through the first half of the album is that Shelby has had some rough breakups with some unkind men. “Gotta Get Back” is a road song about being away from the one you love, but the way the rest of this album has been going, she’s probably gonna get back to find him in bed with their neighbor. (In fairness, the lyrics in the second half of the disc aren’t nearly as disheartening as those on the first half.)
There’s a great joy in finding an album that exceeds all your expectations by not meeting any of them. After Toby Keith last week and Martina McBride the week before, I was not looking forward to slogging through another MotR bit of mainstream, radio-ready country that was long on cliche and short on inspiration. Instead I get a solid rock album with R&B and soul overtones throughout, legitimately decent songwriting, all led by the strong lead vocals of Ms. Lynne and expertly produced by the legendary Bill Bottrell.
This album won Shelby Lynne a Grammy Award for Best New Artist (the irony being that she’d been releasing albums for about a decade when she won). She has continued to record, with her most recent album released in 2017. I can’t wait to hear I Am Shelby Lynne again, and I will definitely be on the lookout for her follow up albums. While this record wasn’t her debut, it was her big breakthrough album and maintains its charm two decades later
Hockey Night, 2005 – Keep Guessin’
[Sadly, not on Spotify – one more reason to hate streaming]
Another band I know nothing about but on which I’m hooked after two songs. Upbeat power pop with a bit of a garage bent – this is right in my wheelhouse (at least two songs in, it is). This is their second and final album – seems a shame since this is such a promising disc. However, the band’s creative power plant, Paul Sprangers, apparently went on to some different projects, so there may be other work worth seeking out.
It seems this record flew under the radar on release, which is just more proof of the random whims of the music industry because it wouldn’t be out-of-place on any college rock playlist from 2005 that included the Wombats, OK Go, The Killers, Modest Mouse, Franz Ferdinand, et al. I was rabidly into the power pop scene at the time and somehow missed out on Hockey Night.
They’re not just pounding rhythms at 130bpm, though. Centerpieces “Renegades” and “This Peaceful Year” have their loud moments but generally stretch out and lounge across your speakers for nine minutes, before digging into some foul-mouthed post-punk on “Grim Break.”
Sprangers seems to be searching out his own musical identity, bringing together all his biggest influences together on one record. It doesn’t end up being as schizophrenic as all that, though; the guitar work, in particular, is consistent throughout and, even more than the vocals, maintains the album’s cohesiveness through shifts in style and tempo.
Fifteen years later, Hockey Night is just another in a long list of also-rans that were good, but not good enough to make it big. Or maybe they were good enough but lacked determination. Or maybe they were determined but ran up against poor management or indifferent labels. Point is, this was their final say on the matter, but they went out with a bang, leaving behind a great album.
Switches, 2008 – Lay Down The Law
Two things: one – this album was released in the UK almost a year before it was released in the US in ‘08 with a different title, a different cover, and one less track, and two – this is in the running for my favorite cover art of the year. It’s the only album the band ever released and I’ve never heard of them before.
The album starts out very strong with the instantly infectious “Drama Queen” sounding like the Odds on steroids. These guys are pretty loud, but super upbeat, bouncy, and most importantly, major-key. I referred to Hockey Night as power pop, but Switches is like Tony-Stark-fusion-technology-power-plant pop, pedal down and grins beaming. The heavy riffing guitars over harmonized vocals and a jungle-drum pattern on “Coming Down” sort of sum up their whole sound and it is magnificent.
Just when I think I’ve got them down as a one (very impressive) trick pony, they pull out “The Need To Be Needed,” a twisted take on ’60s love songs with a slow build and cleverly cynical lyrics.
I have to say, this has been quite the revelatory week so far – three artists I’d never heard and I end up loving all three of them. The further I get into Lay Down The Law the more disappointed I become that this is their only album because it is damn near perfect. The writing and arrangements are brilliant and though I’m not picking apart all the lyrics, I’m picking up on enough to appreciate their youthful cleverness. “Killer Karma” has a great singalong bridge. “Step Kids In Love” is kind of queasy-making but never crosses that line. “Coming Down” seems entirely built on a turn-of-phrase and a wink.
I’m going to stop the effusive gushing. If what I’ve said so far hasn’t convinced you to go find a copy of this disc then nothing more I can say will convince you. There are plenty of copies out there on the cheap and it will be the best three bucks and 37 minutes you spend today.
Lifers Group, 1991 – Lifers Group
[Also not on Spotify, but not as big a loss as missing out on Hockey Night.]
This is a weird CD. I’d never heard of Lifers Group so I looked them up online. Apparently, it’s a group of convicts somehow associated with the Scared Straight initiative. These are convicted criminals, recording while in prison, in an attempt to speak to the youth about not ending up where they are.
I’m surprised at how good the flow and production are. “The Real Deal” is a goddamned horrorshow litany of what you can expect to face in jail ranging from suicide to bad food to “somebody playin’ with your butthole.” I want to sneer at the idea of this having any positive impact but who knows. The first track is certainly scary enough and it only took one episode of Scared Straight in my 20s to convince me that prison was a place where I would not fare well at all.
This is a nine-track single, so apart from “The Real Deal,” and “Belly Of The Beast” we get a handful of radio edits and instrumentals of varying merit. I wasn’t expecting a lot from this project but there is a fair amount of worthwhile material here.
Where “The Real Deal” was based on the broad-based prison experience, “Belly Of The Beast” takes a more personal approach, telling individual stories and starting with “My name is Goldie Boone. I’m one of the ones who didn’t listen. I’ve been in prison for fourteen years.” “Nightmare Man” is a 63-second track of an inmate reading a poem that is legitimately terrifying. “Suckers Edit” is made up of interviews and Scared Straight speeches mixed over the “Belly Of The Beast” Beats.
I can’t figure out if any of this was effective or not. I guess if even one of these songs made someone think twice before heading down a dark path, then that’s successful, right? From my standpoint, the raps are decent and the instrumentals are funky and well done which, from a non-interventionist perspective, makes them the most interesting cuts on the disc.
Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson, Steve Vai, 1997 – G3: Live In Concert
I don’t know a lot about Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson, and Steve Vai except that they’re all rock guitarists of significant renown and they’ve played with many of the greats in rock history. In 1996 they toured together and this disc documents the results, with three songs by each guitarist and then three songs with all three performing together.
It’s a great concept and it seems to me, before even listening to it, that there should be a two- or three-disc expanded version of something like this. Alas, no such luck, but there are two other releases: G3 Live In Denver and G3 Live In Tokyo where they sub in Yngwie Malmsteen and John Petrucci for Eric Johnson. I already have a feeling I’ll be seeking those out.
The Joe Satriani set starts us off with three hard-rocking instrumentals: “Cool #9,” “Flying In A Blue Dream,” and “Summer Song.” Eric Johnson is up next and has a more blues & jazz approach on the first number, “Zap.” I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention Johnson’s band on all three numbers: Roscoe Beck on bass, keyboardist Stephen Barber, and Brannen Temple on drums. It comes down to splitting hairs, but I am enjoying this three-song set the most. Steve Vai’s virtuoso playing is on full display throughout “Answers,” “For The Love Of God,” and “The Attitude Song.”
To close out the album, they do three covers – Moloch’s bluesy “Going Down,” Zappa’s “My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama,” and Hendrix’s “Red House.” It’s pretty amazing to hear these three playing together in a live setting and I can only imagine what it must have been like to see this supergroup together. If nothing else, this CD has turned me on to three outstanding guitarists whose solo catalogs definitely deserve some exploration.
The Ventures, 1965 – Live In Japan ‘65
Performed and recorded in 1965, this concert album wasn’t released until 30 years later. I’ve been a fan of The Ventures forever and have dozens of their albums, so when I saw this CD for a couple bucks, well, you can guess the rest. Even at full price, you’re getting your money’s worth. They’ve packed this disc to max capacity – 29 songs in 77+ minutes. To say the pace is blistering is an understatement.
What can be said about this band that hasn’t been said already? Self-taught surf guitar virtuosos, they’re best known for the theme to Hawaii 5-0 but that hadn’t come out at the time of this concert. They have released over 200 albums but, their popularity in the States was never close to what it was in Japan in the ‘60s and ever since.
I know about half of the songs from this performance, stellar instrumental covers of The Surfaris’ “Wipe Out,” Mancini’s “Pink Panther Theme,” “Love Potion No. 9,” and The Beatles’ “I Feel Fine” among them, along with a lot that I recognize from various Ventures LPs including a stellar version of “Walk Don’t Run,” “Apache,” and “Telstar.” “Bulldog,” the second song of the show, isn’t one I know but this recording impressed the hell out of me. The whole disc ends with an epic nine-minute and forty-five-second surf version of “Caravan.”
For an album that wasn’t released in the U.S. for thirty years after it was recorded, the mastering is fantastic. It sounds great and they made the decision to leave the host’s introduction to each song in place, which adds to the experience (not to mention that it helps to differentiate one instrumental surf tune from another).
Pick this one up if you can – no one can ever have too much surf music, and few were ever as good as The Ventures.
Willie Nelson, 2000 – Milk Cow Blues
This is a Willie Nelson duets album, featuring Dr. John, Keb’ Mo’, Jonny Lang, B.B. King, Susan Tedeschi, and others. It’s also a Willie Nelson blues album, which works out well. It’s not without its shades of country, and Willie’s voice is always unmistakable, but it is first and foremost a blues project. It makes sense, then, that he would pair up with some of the greats from the blues pantheon as a way of giving this excursion into new territory some added legitimacy (as if he needs it – he’s Willie Goddamn Nelson).
Dr. John’s voice and piano are unmistakable and indispensable on “Black Night,” which also features a killer electric guitar solo from Derek O’Brien. Francine Reed delivers a stunning vocal on the opener and title track. She returns for “Funny How Time Slips Away” and I’m convinced I need some Francine Reed records- her voice is so powerful, even in this fairly restrained setting. Susan Tedeschi joins in on “Crazy” and even though I’ve always loved Willie’s original, this is the first time I’ve heard it as a duet and it is fantastic.
B.B. King comes in on “The Thrill Is Gone” and relative newcomer (at the time) Jonny Lang helps out on “Rainy Day Blues.” Needless to say, but the guitar work is great on both. Each of the guest stars comes back for another turn and then the album goes out on a high note with Kenny Wayne Shepherd joining Willie and the band for a nearly nine-minute version of “Texas Flood.”
Amidst all these duets with giants, Mr. Nelson does handle a few songs on his own, but still in a blues motif. By the time the first of these appears halfway through the album, I’ve almost forgotten that he’s a country singer since it sounds like he’s been singing the blues his whole life. “Wake Me When It’s Over” along with his versions of “Lonely Street” and “Sittin’ On Top Of The World” all stand on their own as worthwhile takes on the genre, thanks in large part to his band, but these songs are also well suited to the exquisite expressiveness that Willie’s voice has always imparted.
I was expecting a country album with some guest spots. What I got was a blues extravaganza featuring some of the biggest names of the genre paired with one of the preeminent artists of our time. I love Willie Nelson as a country artist, but this record certainly makes a case that he might have missed his calling as a blues singer instead.
Paul McCartney, 2007 – Memory Almost Full
I like a lot of Paul McCartney’s solo stuff but I’ve never viewed him as the second coming of anything. I know a lot of fans do and I get it. And maybe I just haven’t heard enough of his full albums to make a fair assessment.
I wasn’t even aware of 2007’s Memory Almost Full until I found a sealed deluxe edition at a local shop for $7. Couldn’t pass that up. It’s fine. It’s not great. There are some really strong cuts here – “Ever Present Past” which was the first single from the album. But there are also the typically goofy McCartney lyrics that crop up, like on “See Your Sunshine” where he couples “She makes me feel glad” with “I want her so bad.” I know Paul was never seen as the intellectual in that famous foursome, but come on.
But overall it tends to be exactly what you’d expect from Sir Paul approaching the twilight of his career. Interestingly, he played all the instruments on a number of tracks, employing his touring band in the studio on fewer than half of the songs. Of course, with multi-tracking and overdubs, it hardly matters, but nothing feels organic about the music at that point – no interplay of musicians exchanging ideas and taking cues from one another, just clinical exactitude. To this end, it’s the full band sessions that end up among the best on the disc, “That Was Me,” and “Only Mama Knows” (though no band on earth could have saved the wretched “Gratitude” or “Vintage Clothes”). The last full-band track on the album, “House Of Wax,” is also one of the strongest, with a couple of extended guitar solos and a huge Martin-esque crescendo reminiscent of “A Day In The Life.”
The bonus disc in this set includes a two-minute instrumental called “In Private” that is actually as good as anything on the album and better than much of it. “Why So Blue” is a lilting acoustic pop number that could also have replaced one of the lesser tracks on the record. Finally, “222” is more a sketch than an actual song, instruments popping in for a few notes at a time, no real lyrics, all built on the same four-note piano phrase repeated over and over – and still I prefer this over most of the main disc.
I wanted to really like this because, as I said, I like Paul McCartney. Ultimately, though, it’s just okay and I’m probably overrating it because I like Sir Paul and it feels borderline sacrilegious to badmouth one of his albums. I’ll still buy his solo stuff when I see it out and about and I need to make it a point to pick up a few of his early outings, but this particular album misses the mark.
Merril Bainbridge, 1996 (US) – Mouth (Single)
[The single isn’t on Spotify, so you get the whole album, which has both songs from the single on it.]
This is one of those underrated hits of the ‘90s, the type that would crop up occasionally and make me think that commercial radio might still have something to offer. Truly a one-hit wonder here in the states, Merril Bainbridge never cracked the Top 40 again, though she did have some moderate continued success in her native Australia.
“Mouth” was, in fact, released in Australia nearly three years before it hit our shores. It is a bubbly, bubblegum pop sort of thing that should be a throwaway but which is so expertly crafted that it has stuck with me for going-on-25 years. Despite the sugar-sweet vocal delivery and bounciness of the rhythm section, the song is rife with violent imagery: “I feel like I’ve been blown apart / there are pieces here…” and “I’d be inclined to slap you in the mouth,” juxtaposed with Lolita seductress lines like, “Kiss me on my salty lips,” and “Would I be so bad if I could turn you on?”
The entire third verse is delivered nearly a cappella before the bouncing bassline comes back in, giving the song a texture dissimilar to anything else on the radio at the time. It is a three-and-a-half minute slice of perfection that hasn’t diminished in the least in a quarter-century. I had hoped to hear more from her, but that never happened.
Despite how impressed I was with this single, I never did get around to buying her album, The Garden. That may be because I never heard anything further from her apart from the b-side to “Mouth.” “Julie” is a beautiful little girl’n’guitar composition performed over a small string ensemble. At the time I failed to appreciate the song because it wasn’t the infectious earworm of the a-side, but over time I’ve come to think it might be the better of the two tracks on this disc.
Revisiting this today I’m tempted to go get a copy of the album on CD, just to see what more it has to offer. It’s super cheap through used sites online and it has the added bonus that she does a Pet Shop Boys cover on the disc, which I’d love to hear. My enthusiasm is probably coming about 25 years too late, but better now than never.
10,000 Manics, 1992 – Our Time In Eden
When I reviewed a 10kM CD last week I had no idea I had another one coming up this week. If I did, I’d probably just have reviewed them together because I’ve never really been able to tell one song apart from another, let alone a whole album. Still, a full-fledged LP has to be better than the selection of early recordings that made up last week’s subject, right?
Natalie Merchant has a great voice, no question, but I always want her to do more with it. I love the single “These Are Days” and it remains the Maniacs’ most recognizable touchpoint for casual fans. Follow up single, “Candy Everybody Wants” made a small splash but did better on the college radio charts, as would be expected. Ersatz title track “Eden” benefits from the whole band contributing to the writing.
Two of my perpetual issues with this band is their having taken up permanent residence in Midtempoland and the lack of variation in their melodies. As strong as her voice is, Merchant’s drone seldom shows any real expression. An exception to both of these drawbacks is “Few And Far Between” which strays dangerously toward the fun end of mid-tempo and even brings in a pile of horns to breathe some much-needed color into the otherwise monochrome tableaux that is 10,000 Maniacs.
Mostly though, this is just another album by Natalie & Co. and the best I can say about it is that it is unfailingly pretty, but more in a way that soothes the senses rather than stirs the imagination. I didn’t have “These Are Days” in my collection, so I’m glad to remedy that, and “Few And Far Between” was an unexpected gem. Apart from that, this CD will get shelved, probably permanently.
John Anderson, 1996 – Paradise
Somehow, I’ve never heard of country mainstay John Anderson. In looking up this album prior to reviewing it I looked him up online and found out he’s been recording and performing since 1980 and putting out a staggering number of albums in that time, including at least one a year throughout the ‘80s. Paradise is his sixteenth, but the first one I’ve ever heard.
Right off the bat, I’m pleased to find that his style takes far more from the legit old-school brand of country than it does from the pop-country that started to gain a foothold in the ‘90s. The title track is about carving out your own space in the world, insular though that may be. “Long Hard Lesson Learned” is a uniquely conservationist tune about learning from the past and trying to make a better future. “The Band Plays On,” is a typical country heartbreak number that underscores resilience in the face of personal setbacks.
In fact, this album is just the sort of country music that I love in that it mostly invokes backwoods, shit-kicking good times. “My Kind Of Crazy,” features skinny-dipping, among other deviant acts. “Let The Guitar Do The Talkin’” features the inimitable Mark Knopfler on a sweet electric guitar bridge and name drops both David Allan Coe and Chuck Berry. “30,000 Feet” is a tongue-in-cheek take on equality and universal acceptance.
There are a couple bits of sappiness that I could do without on the second half of the disc, but that’s par for the course on most country albums. It winds up nicely, though, with the blues-influenced “Bad Weather” and a de rigueur tale of true love in “They Spent Forever.”
I get that country music isn’t everyone’s cup of bourbon, but done right, it’s as much fun as anything else out there. This disc was an enjoyable half an hour and contained far more gems than lumps of coal. And once again, this is why I spend my time digging through – and listening to – that lot of 2500 CDs I got just over a year ago: some of the acts I’ve never even heard of turn out to be something I should’ve been listening to all along.
At the risk of repeating myself, this was a great week for discovering some new favorites. I have gone back to the Hockey Night and Switches albums repeatedly this week, along with spending some time with Shelby Lynne. Then there’s John Anderson and that fantastic Willie Nelson CD. This week certainly made up for slogging through some of the mediocre stuff of weeks past.
As always, thank you for reading!
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Until next time, keep those discs spinning.