(DIVIDE) Ed Sheeran (Atlantic) ****
This has to be one of the most anticipated releases of the year. Divide (the title is actually the division symbol, which my keyboard doesn’t have), after taking 2016 off to travel, really ups Sheeran’s game and EVERYONE will pay attention to this record.
The 25 year old singer/ songwriter takes us through a big personal journey over these 16 cuts as he reflects on past relationships, family memories, his musical career and last year’s world travels. Musically this is a lively mix of up-tempo pop songcraft, hip-hop elements, and those signature ballads that chicks dig. Divide was executive-produced by multi-Grammy winner Benny Blanco and Sheeran himself, with additional production by Johnny McDaid, Mike Elizondo and Steve Mac. Lots of fingers in the pie to be sure, but the expansive results speak for themselves.
It must be a function of age but his heartfelt, romantic ballads reflect an inexperienced naïveté that his mostly young demographic relates to. They tend to be the low-light of his records for me- I prefer the bouncy, catchy pop songs to these emotional dirges. It’s rare that you hear an English singer with an accent, but it does surface here on occasion- and there’s also a weird, sort of clipped thing that reminds me of Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off. I have an 11 year old granddaughter, so I hear things- don’t judge me.
All things considered Divide is a good, possibly excellent pop album. Too many ballads for my taste and at 16 tracks it seems unnecessarily long, but that’s the ‘get off my lawn’ side of my personality. Sheeran is a worldwide pop phenom but this disc shows he’s not coasting, willing to push the envelope a bit more each time- I like that.
ESSENTIALS: Eraser, Dive, Galway Girl, Barcelona
DON’T LET UP Night Ranger (Frontiers) *** ½
Hard to believe, but this is Night Ranger’s 12th album. Full of the melodic hard rock that made them a genuine big deal in the first place, fans will love this long time.
I first noticed the band on their debut, Dawn Patrol, thanks to guitarist Brad Gillis when he filled in for the then recently departed Randy Rhoads in Ozzy’s band- wanted to see what else this guy had to offer. Songs like Don’t Tell Me You Love Me and You Can Still Rock In America were tres excellent, but when they had a monster hit with Sister Christian I got turned off and haven’t been back since.
Imagine my pleasant surprise, then, when throwing on Don’t Let Up and finding a set of energetic and melodic rockers. “We have all the elements that made us popular in the first place” notes guitarist Brad Gillis, “including twin lead vocal trade-offs with Jack (Blades, bass & vocals) and Kelly (Keagy, drums & vocals) and (guitar) solos with my new partner in crime Keri Kelli.” There are the requisite acoustic ballads too, of course, with songs like We Can Work It Out sounding like something from Jack Blades’ side project Shaw Blades, with Styx guitarist Tommy Shaw.
If you watch TV and movies or play video games Night Ranger’s music is hard to escape, and I imagine that some of the songs on the new album will find their way into those vehicles as well. Don’t Let Up is tight, melodic and punchy in the right places. The riffs are catchy and melodic as hell, and the twin lead vocal style of the band is weirdly uplifting too, putting a real bounce in your step as you listen. I’m enjoying this album, maybe even enough to check out some of what I’ve missed since Dawn Patrol.
ESSENTIALS: Somehow Someway, We Can Work It Out, Comfort Me
CHILLS & FEVER Samantha Fish (Ruf) ****
This isn‘t my first Samantha Fish record, but it’s still a surprise in the very best possible way. Chills & Fever is more classic soul than anything else- a change from Fish’s usual blues, yet so very cool and authentic you can’t help but love it.
This Kansas City singer/ guitarist definitely did her homework this time out. “I listened to a lot of soul music, and I dug deep into people like Otis Redding and Ray Charles” Fish says. “I was also influenced by people like R.L. Burnside and North Mississippi’s Junior Kimbrough. It’s a lot less restrained style of music than the sound people may be used to hearing from me, but it’s definitely a different facet of my personality. It’s far more straightforward.” She traveled to Detroit to work with members of The Detroit Cobras, and that raw punk/blues vibe is evident.
The songs on Chills & Fever have a definite late 60’s feel that would not be out of place in an Austin Powers movie, their sassiness elevated by some great horn parts. This is a pure slab of rockin’ rhythm & blues that reflects the indelible melodies of people like Jackie DeShannon and Allen Touissant, and producer Bobby Harlow takes us back to the late sixties/ early seventies with a rollicking sound that seems as though it’s coming from of your folks’ old record collection.
Nothing Samantha has done before has prepared you for what you are about to hear, but those that dare give Chills & Fever a chance will be well rewarded.
ESSENTIALS: Chills & Fever, You Can’t Go, I’ll Come Running Over
FISTFUL OF GUMPTION Randy McAllister (Reaction Records) **** ½
If you’re expecting a disc of by-the-numbers Texas blues, keep moving- there’s nothing for you here. If the thought of blues that has been twisted, spanked and manhandled tickles your fancy, pull up a chair- have I got an album for you!
The best description of what exactly is at play here comes from Blueprint Magazine; “Roughhewn and wild at times, this is Texas blues the way it should be. This is real music, not conveyor belt blues.” Fistful Of Gumption is wild and hairy in all the right ways. McAllister (vocals, drums, harp) followed in his dad’s footsteps, playing drums in local bands before finding the harmonica in his early 20’s while stationed in Massachusetts with the Air Force. He’s also got one of the most soulful voices I’ve heard in a good long while. Oh- I almost forgot to mention; his touring band, also featured on this album is called “The Scrappiest Band in the Motherland”.
Fistful Of Gumption mixes raw blues with some straight up country in what feels like a true representation of Texas music- it feels like the ghost of Bob Wills is smiling down on this one. 9 of these tracks are McAllister originals, with the exception being a sweet remake of Earl King Johnson’s Time For The Sun To Rise. No smoke, mirrors, choreography or industry machinery at play here, kids- just raw, sweaty talent with some dirt under the fingernails… the way it should be.
McAllister is more than just a blues shouter, I hear echoes of Otis and Percy in his voice, maybe a little Bobby “Blue” Bland too… and his “Scrappiest Band In The Motherland” isn’t shy about layin’ it down and gettin’ dirty. Maya Van Nuys’s fiddle work is a definite highlight, and like the title implies this disc has guts and attitude to spare.
ESSENTIALS: Time For The Sun To Rise, Roll With The Flow, The Oppressor