TERRIBLE HUMAN BEINGS The Orwells (Warner Music) **** ½
With a title like that, how can you not be interested? Chicago’s The Orwells are back with their 3rd album, Terrible Human Beings- a jagged, snotty punk rock masterpiece.
“Not too far back we sat down to write what we call ‘mutilated pop songs’ ” says guitarist Matt O’Keefe. “We wanted to makes songs that at their core are catchy and pretty, and slash them up”, and succeed they did. These songs are so hummable it’s ridiculous, and there’s a kind of bravado/malevolence at work that makes them even more enjoyable, a rock & roll vibe that seems to have all but died out.
The Orwells are quite a young group. They’ve been together since high school- in fact they were already writing songs for their debut Disgraceland when they graduated in 2013- and moved out of their parents’ houses after coming off the road in 2015. It was around then that they began writing for this record with vocalist Mario Cuomo, guitarist Dominic Corso and Matt O’Keefe initiating the process. “We wrote these songs in a much more confined way than what we had done with the last records, where it was all five of us in a room” says Matt. This time, it would start out with me and Dom with acoustic guitars and Mario on vocals. We’d build the skeletons of the songs and didn’t take them too far when we added Grant (Brinner, bass) and Henry (Brinner, drums).”
Terrible Human Beings is exhilarating 4-on-the-floor rock & roll with a sort Kinks meet The Pixies feeling to it. “The Pixies were an obsession when we were writing this album” admits O’Keefe. “I think that’s where a lot of trying to make the songs and the guitar parts very simple was coming from, because The Pixies are the kings of that. We’ve always been a simple band, but this time it was about trying to keep everything straightforward, nothing flashy.” Mission accomplished- crank it up.
ESSENTIALS: Black Francis, Hippy Soldier, Double Feature, They Put A Body In The Bayou
NO MORE BLUE MONDAYS Landon Spradlin (independent) *****
It’s widely known that gospel music can lead to the blues, but No More Blue Mondays is proof of how well they can work together. Originally released in 1995 and featuring members of Eric Clapton’s band, being soulful isn’t limited to a specific sound, it’s a natural part of who Spradlin is, and this is a wonderful record.
Landon Spradlin has been touted as Ray Charles meets Johnny Winter, and I think that’s in the ballpark. His guitar playing isn’t as frantic but it’s got Texas muscle, and the solos will make the hair on your arms stand up. As a singer, he sounds very much like Brother Ray with throaty, gut-wrenching vocals. I’m used to blues albums and songs being about ‘worldly’ concerns like having a good time or relationships on the rocks, so the Christian gospel themes of these songs caught me off guard. At first I thought “Blues with gospel lyrics is wrong, isn’t?” but it works like gangbusters.
No More Blue Mondays is also an extremely well recorded album. Produced by Dan Cutrona, the sound is spacious with each instrument well placed in the mix across the stereo spectrum. Clapton’s drummer Henry Spinetti is on all tracks- he’s a favorite of mine, and his playing here lends a Clapton-ish Slowhand-era feel to the backbone of the tunes.
Landon Spradlin isn’t a household name like BB King, but based on the 9 songs I’ve just heard, he SHOULD be. No More Blue Mondays is a record that will take you deep and baptize you in the waters of the Mississippi as it takes you to church at the same time. It’s a marvelous, inspiring collection of songs that you need to hear.
ESSENTIALS: I’ve Never Been To Seminary, Drift Away (the Dobie Gray song), He Is There
RECKONING Billy T Band (Big H Records) ***
Here is the 4th disc for The Billy T Band, a collection of songs steeped in American soul, blues, R&B and the swamp- it’s going to show you a good time.
Billy T was born and raised in New York City, and you can really feel it here. He played and recorded with Eddie Kirkland for 12 years, the Tom Russell Band for 10, and he’s work with such diverse artists as Lightnin’ Hopkins and Nancy Griffith. After moving to Norway in ’97, he ran the house band at Oslo’s Muddy Waters blues club for 7 years, helping to launch young Norwegian talents like Kid Andersen, now with Rick Estrin & The Nightcats.
Yes there is blues on Reckoning, songs like On Your Own with some very Allman-esque slide guitar. The title track kicks of the album and lets you know you’re in for much more than that, though- its elegant upbeat blue-eyed soul with brass and strings with some blues guitar, a sound that points more to Stax and Philly soul than anything. With the cover art- a photo of an old rusty, dusty Ford parked on a dirt street in Nowhere USA, smooth and soulful was not the vibe I was expecting here.
Such expectations aside, once you dig into the lyrics this is a pretty satisfying listen and the musicianship is relaxed excellence. William Troiani has that soul vibe down, and the use of strings on cuts like Reckoning and Gone really give the album a mid-70’s soul feel. Reckoning isn’t the kind of album I’ll be in the mood for all the time, but there WILL times when it’s soothing soul sound will be just what I need- and for that reason, I’ll be keeping it handy.
ESSENTIALS: Reckoning, Gone, I’ve Been A Fool
TOKYO MOTOR FIST Tokyo Motor Fist (Frontiers) ** ½
What do you get when you throw Danger Danger singer Ted Poley and Trixter guitarist Steve Brown into the same room together? They come out with an enjoyable slab of 80’s melodic hard rock called Tokyo Motor Fist, that’s what.
This album reminds me somewhat of Def Leppard, and given the pedigree of the musicians involved that comes as no surprise. Aside from the 2 mentioned above, TMF also includes bassist Greg Smith (Ted Nugent, Rainbow, Alice Cooper) and drummer Chuck Burgi (Rainbow, Blue Oyster Cult, Joe Lynn Turner), and commercial 80’s style rock is where all 4 guys come from. You’ll find some catchy hooks and hummable riffs amongst these 11 songs, and some pretty decent playing too, but is that enough to make people say “Hey, I NEED to have this”?
Throwing Tokyo Motor Fist into the CD player is like time traveling back to the 80’s, to all those nights you spent hammered in some club you can’t quite remember now. These songs have that sort of artificial bigness to them, with the keyboard washiness that was a big part of commercial rock back in the day, what we then called ‘corporate rock’.
The guys in TMF are clearly talented musicians and there is some really good playing going on here but a leaner, meaner, more stripped down sound and production style would have lifted them above being just another 80’s-type band. Tokyo Motor Fist is a decent enough record and I wouldn’t turn off the radio if any of these songs came on, but there’s nothing really special about it- at least not to me. Sorry, guys.
ESSENTIALS: Put Me To Shame, Love Me Insane
ALONSO Alonso (Last Tango) ****
This is one of the most hypnotizing sets I’ve heard in a long time. Sort a mesmerizing amalgamation of Seal and Sade with Latin influences, it’s a collection of songs that can and will carry you away effortlessly.
Alonso was the founding member and principle songwriter for Toronto’s Glueleg, who released 3 albums in the 90’s for EMI. This album was written and recorded throughout last year and meticulously produced by James Stewart, who had done a couple of Glueleg records as well as working on albums for Barenaked Ladies, Kim Mitchell and Holly Cole. Stewart passed away just before completing the final mixes on Alonso, and the album is dedicated to him. The end result is a meticulous pop blend he would approve of.
Alonso, at just 7 tracks, feels more like an E.P. than an album- but like one of Sade’s records, it really takes you on a journey. It is a soundtrack meant to help you get away from everything and disappear, if only just for a little while- something it does exceedingly well. It has as much to do with the romance of the lyrics as it does the hypnotically precise musical arrangements and multi-tracked vocals.
This isn’t the kind of thing you’ll be blasting in the truck on your way to a hockey game, Alonzo feels best in a low lit room, by yourself, with a willingness to let go and find the answers that elude you- or not, it doesn’t matter. A glass of wine or a couple of fingers of good scotch wouldn’t hurt either. For me at least, it feels a bit like therapy- and at $6.93 on I-Tunes (I looked), it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than seeing a shrink.
ESSENTIALS: These Are The Clouds, I Believe In The Same Things, Here Now On