Music Reviews by John the Rock Doctor – May 13th, 2020

HERMITAGE Ron Sexsmith (Warner Music Canada) *** ½  

A new album here from one of Elton John’s favourite songwriters.  Moving from Toronto to Stratford, Ontario seems to agree with Sexsmith- Hermitage is full of the descriptive, quiet magic that we want from his records.

To create Hermitage Ron teamed up with producer/ drummer Ken Kerr, setting up in his living room to record the album, with Sexsmith playing every instrument except those drums.  That’s not unlike Billy Corgan who with Smashing Pumpkins played virtually every instrument on their records, simply because he knew exactly how he wanted each part to sound.  Of the process, Sexsmith says “For about a week, the house was turned upside down.  The drums were up in this room, I was down in the other room playing piano, cables everywhere. It was kinda like when The Stones set up in France for ‘Exile On Main St.’, except without all the debauchery.”

Hermitage, as with any previous Sexsmith records I have become familiar with, takes a couple of listens to wander inside and enjoy the songs.  He has an ear for catchy, insistent pop melodies that feel like they’ve always been with you, along with lyrical themes that feel personal to whoever might be listening.  He’s recognized as one of Canada’s greatest songwriters, having collaborated with the likes of Daniel Lanois, Mitchell Froom and Bob Rock.  His songs have appeared on albums by Rod Stewart, Michael Buble, k.d. lang, Emmylou Harris and Feist, plus he’s won 3 Junos, been nominated 15 times too including 8 nods for songwriter of the year.

The songs on Hermitage convey uncertainty with fearlessness and heart in a gentle and melodic context, not unlike some of George Harrison’s best stuff.  No fist pumping rockers here, but then we’d be surprised if there were.  Songs like Chateau Mermaid are buoyant and welcoming, while Glow In The Dark Stars is quietly hopeful with a pace similar to Elton John’s Daniel.  Hermitage is the kind of pop record to put on when you want the world to go away for awhile and get lost, if only for a little while. Daft and campy cover art, though.

KEY CUTS:  Glow In The Dark Stars, You Don’t Wanna Hear It, Chateau Mermaid

26 EAST: VOLUME 1 Dennis DeYoung (Frontiers) *****

The former Styx front man returns with his 6th solo album.  Originally intended to be Dennis’s final album, so many songs were written for 26 East that Frontiers CEO Serafino Perugino suggested dividing them up into two records.  Dramatic and grandiose, putting this on is like hearing an old Styx record that you had somehow forgotten.

26 East was the address where Dennis DeYoung grew up on the far south side of Chicago.  The Panozzo twins (drums and bass) were right across the street, and they formed the nucleus of Styx in Dennis’s basement.  “On this, I decided to write songs about my journey from humble beginnings to the top of my chosen profession” he says.

The album started with neighbour and fellow Chicagoan Jim Peterik’s encouragement.  “He once told me the world needed my music to which I replied ‘have the world text me for verification’” DeYoung wryly notes.  “We collaborated from the get-go, happily and seamlessly, just two Chicago guys doing what they do best- making music and having a laugh.”  On this album Dennis has combined his melodic pop smarts, that unmistakable voice and a well known love for The Beatles to create a memorable piece of work,  inviting Julian Lennon to duet with him on For The Good Old Days. “I wrote an email to him and was just about to send it when I listened one last time and realized Jules should not sing this song” Dennis says. “It was my story, not his.”  Instead, DeYoung went to his piano and wrote an entirely new tune for them to duet on.  “The moment we sang together in the studio, it felt magical.”

26 East will sound and feel at times like Styx, like the opening track East Of Midnight, but by and large I’d say it’s not as bombastic or experimental as records like Crystal Ball or The Grand Illusion.  If the surviving members of the original line-up will ever reunite for one final go is anyone’s guess- Dennis has suggested it but seems unlikely after all these years.  As a long-time fan, since Equinox in ’75, I am well satisfied with 26 East Volume 1.  DeYoung’s pop sensibilities, Broadway-sized sense of drama and remarkable voice make this a winner. It’s due out May 22nd, but you can pre-order it now.

KEY CUTS:  East Of Midnight, To The Good Old Days, Damn That Dream

EMERALD SEAS Seven Spires (Frontiers) ***

Here is the sophomore release from this American metal quartet.  Emerald Seas can be described as part melodic metal anthems, part apocalyptic black and death metal, with a shot of romantic poeticism.  They’re ambitious, talented, and on a mission.

The members of the band met at the Berklee College Of Music in Boston so they each have chops up the ying yang and a work ethic that seems second to none.  Singer Adrienne Cowan’s soaring vocals are the perfect counterpoint to cut through the metal maelstrom laid down by her band mates.  With a female singer comparisons to Evanescence are inevitable, but Emerald Seas is more propulsive, ambitious and relentless than anything  I’ve heard from Amy Lee and her chums.

The symphonic elements, be they real strings or faux strings via keyboards, add an interesting feel to Emerald Seas.  Love the heavy guitars and punishing rhythm section along with that and the textural variation throughout.  HOWEVER… the death metal vocals are a huge turn-off.  I know that’s a popular style, but a singer that sounds like Cookie Monster on a meth binge while gargling broken glass doesn’t work for me and never has.  Yes it’s a physically demanding vocal style, but trying to force extreme emotion into a song that way is a cheap trick.  Having said that, I’m sure my parents felt the same way about the crap I was listening to in my bedroom in the 70’s.

So yeah- I’m kind of on the fence about this one.  I really dig Emerald Seas musically, particularly tracks where Cowan’s vocals dominate.  The howly, screamy death metal vocals, not so much; in fact not at all.  It’s a solid album, but with both vocal styles featured here, it’s in real danger of falling between the cracks.  Black Metal freaks will balk at the pretty stuff, and fans of the more melodic passages won’t enjoy the banshee screaming.  If I have any advice for Seven Spires, I’d say pick a lane and stick to it.

KEY CUTS:  Ghost Of A Dream, Unmapped Darkness, Bury You

FRIENDS & FAMILY Jim Diamond Revue (independent) *****

New music under a new banner from Jim Diamond- singer, guitarist and leader of The Groove Syndicate.  Friends & Family swings and grooves like crazy, more often than not within a blues framework.  This is the sound of a great party.

Lots of great sounds here within these particular grooves that go beyond Diamond’s usual soulful bluesiness, from a second line stomp to a Sun Studio vibe, to instrumental workouts that sound like chase music for a 70’s TV cop show.  As the title implies, Jim has expanded his boundaries here to include friends, family and even former band mates to pitch in and take this thing to places The Groove Syndicate has never been.  With that much input this could have easily turned into an ugly train wreck, but the exact oppose is true… blues and southern soul, a-rockin’ and a-swingin’, it’s magnificent.

“I think of the revues as the old blues cats on the bus, going on the circuit” Diamond says in explaining the inspiration for this disc. “Lots of different players and sounds, musical opportunities that normally wouldn’t be there if all those guys weren’t on that bus together for those long drives.”  That vibe is very much apparent throughout Friends & Family, a feeling of ‘Well, we got some ideas… let’s set up the mics, strap up and see what happens.’ There’s a live, loose energy to this collection of songs that’s really filling my heart, and I mean right to the brim.

On the inside cover the musicians are listed under “The Groove Syndicate” and “Friends & Family” so if you need to know who’s who, then check there or on the website.  This unique and friendly sound is a blend of blues, soul, jazz, swing, rock and Americana that knows exactly where it’s going.  In the liner notes Jim credits Tom Lavin of Powder Blues for “free of charge guidance, ears and advice”, and I suspect that what’s going on here reminded Tom of Powder Blues’ early years. This thing is so cool it’s ridiculous.

KEY CUTS:  Tell Me, Dog House, Rock And Roll All Over Me

THE LAST OF THE BOOGIEMEN Rusty Ends & Hillbilly Hoodoo (independent) ****

This album gets high marks for the attitude as much as it does the musical content.  Rusty Ends & Hillbilly Hoodoo are the last real deal, the missing link between 50’s blues and rockabilly, and The Last Of The Boogiemen is schizo and very together at the same time.  I live in rural Alberta, so this record feels like home to me.

Rusty Ends brings quite the musical baggage with him, having backed the likes of The Shirelles, The Drifters, The Marvelettes, Bobby Lewis, The Coasters, and even The Little River Band.  The Last Of The Boogiemen is his most stripped down effort; just guitar, bass and drums and, on two cuts, Gary Falk on tenor sax.  There’s some fun jump blues here, songs like Bob Wills Played The Blues, but Rusty doesn’t like to stay in one particular lane for very long. Marty Rosen of Leo Magazine rightly observes that “Rusty has managed the tough task of assimilating lots of styles without being swallowed by any.  Jazzy uptown blues to rockabilly.  You may even hear traces of New Orleans funk.”  If that sounds interesting to you, that’s because it is.

The Last Of The Boogiemen isn’t too highly polished but you can’t say it’s sloppy either.  The playing by all is immaculate yet not overly mannered, giving this suite of songs a Southern stagger ‘n’ swagger that feels real good, particularly when cranked up to 11. This was recorded last October in Memphis, engineered and mixed by Till Palmer and, I would assume, produced by Rusty hisself.  Don’t know if it was live off the floor but it does have that feel to it, and it did only take them 3 days to lay it down.  That’s always the preferred way to go with this type of music, going for the feel of the performance as opposed to technical perfection.  That’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it.

KEY CUTS: Bob Wills Played The Blues, Cheap Wine, Rockabilly Boogie #1003

ROCK & ROLL LOVE AFFAIR Crosson (Galaxy Records) ***

Some hair metal for you here from Down Under.  Catchy if not particularly adventurous rock & roll, Rock & Roll Love Affair will neither feed the hungry or change the world… but if you expect nothin’ but a good time, Crosson is speaking your language.

This bad boy follows 2018’s highly successful Invincible, which spent 10 consecutive weeks in the Top 30 German Rock and Metal charts, and was voted Sleaze Nation’s #2 album of that year.  Billed as ‘Australian based Glam Rock Warriors’, Crosson’s Rock & Roll Love Affair is purposely built to take advantage of that success.  This album was mixed once again by legendary American producer Duane Baron  (Ozzy, Motley Crue, Alice Cooper, Poison) and trades in catchy, infectious riffs that would’ve been huge in the 80’s.  So it’s fresh exercise in nostalgia, you might say.

There were many hair metal tunes written in the 80’s about hot, leggy blondes, but Crosson takes a left turn on the new album with Weak At The Knees (For A Hot Brunette).  Singer/ writer/ producer Jason Crosson simply notes that “There are too many songs about blondes.  It’s about time the brunettes around the world were celebrated.  Talk about art imitating life, I have two weaknesses- chocolate ice cream and beautiful brunettes!”

On an imaginary hair band scale, I would put Rock & Roll Love Affair on roughly the same level as Poison’s Look What The Cat Dragged In. The music is likeable enough, but not particularly challenging or aggressive, and hence nothing to get really worked up about.  And not saying that Jason Crosson is a terrible singer, far from it- but I think the songs would’ve benefitted from a stronger, brawnier vocalist.  Production is clean and crisp, Baron really knows how to put some punch in these tunes.

Kudos to bands like Crosson for keeping pleasure-based rock & roll alive and well.  Rock & Roll Love Affair is hardly Zep IV or Screaming For Vengeance, nor is it trying to be.  This is hella-decent driving music, and there are far worse fates than being a collection of toe-tapping riff rave ups.

KEY CUTS:  Merry Go Round, Everyone’s A Star, Weak At The Knees

PERHAPS THE GODS OF LOVE Beth Anne Cole (independent) ***

This is one of the most ‘different’ albums I’ve listened to in quite a while.  Part theatre part cabaret, Perhaps The Gods Of Love, Beth Anne’s 3rd album, is a richly textured and occasionally sparse dramatic encounter, poetry set to music in more than just the classic sense of a pop or folk song.  This is definitely something to put on when you’re in the mood to think about life… it’s like getting lost inside a good story.

Beth Anne Cole is an actor, painter, poet and singer/ songwriter, noted for her long running role on the TV show Mr. Dressup.  This disc weaves an eclectic tapestry of diverse cultural threads; Quebecois chansons, Japanese poetry, even a Yiddish folksong as well as classic concert music.  For this particular adventure, Cole is backed by an artful chamber ensemble of piano, clarinet, bass, viola, accordion and flute.  As I listen, it’s evident that Perhaps The Gods Of Love will appeal mostly to those interested in theatre.

As someone that listens primarily to rock, blues and folk, Perhaps is outside my usual sphere of experience; yet I’m really enjoying how it stretches me.  Beth Anne expresses herself starkly and strikingly at the centre of every song, and that’s kind of exciting.  You’ll find yourself drawn helplessly yet willingly into these songs of loss, romance, abandonment, aging and death, all tempered by the transformative power of love.  It’s not the sort of journey every listener is up for to be sure, but giving yourself over to the music and poetry of these 13 songs- 14, if you include the French version of the title song- is rewarding.

Perhaps The Gods Of Love won’t have you pounding the steering wheel as you fly down the highway at warp speed or humming like your favourite pop ditties make you do on occasion, but given a chance it will expand the boundaries of your musical experience in cool and beautiful ways- at least that’s what it has done for me.

KEY CUTS:  My Story Of Ruth, Walk Into The Morning, La Fille de la Maree

SWAMP BLUES 2 8 Ball Aitken (independent) ****+

Used to be the great slide players came from Texas and/or Chicago, but thanks to guys like Dave Hole and 8 Ball Aitken, we need to add Australia to that list.  Swamp Blues 2 is exactly what you think it is; lowdown, greasy, hypnotic blues.

Since relocating to Nashville 8 years ago, Aitken has been honing his skills with some of the best in the business.  Swamp Blues 2 is his 11th album, a groove-centric Delta funk delight to follow last year’s successful Swamp Blues.  His guitar playing has an early Steve Earle swagger to it and as a singer he reminds me a lot of Ray Wylie Hubbard which really brings these songs to life.  There’s a live energy to this disc, and I like the way the drummer locks in just behind the beat- it’s like walking into a Texas roadhouse around midnight; you hear this blasting from the bandstand and you think “I’m home.”

Swamp Blues 2 was recorded at Yellow Dog Studios in Wimberley, Texas and produced by 8 Ball himself.  Aiding and abetting Aitken in this particular enterprise are the amazing rhythm section of drummer JJ Johnson (Tedeschi/ Trucks Band, John Mayer), and Austin bass player Glenn Fukunaga (Robert Plant, Dr. John, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, Dixie Chicks).  Plus, 8 Ball’s friend Buddy Leach (George Thorogood) guests on sax and keys.  Together they’ve put up a master class in grooviosity.

I suppose there’s a place in music for pinpoint precision and accuracy, but more often than not the blues is more effective- deeper reaching- when it kicks down those swinging doors and just staggers on in.  In that way Swamp Blues 2 is deceptive- it might seem sloppy, it might sound sloppy, but it’s not.  The best way to describe this album is ‘rugged’.  For a guy from Australia, 8 Ball Aitken really has the Delta in his bones… I wouldn’t be surprised to find Mississippi mud on the soles of his shoes.  Yep- thanks to records like Swamp Blues 2, 2020 is shaping up to be a great year for blues.

KEY CUTS:  Murderer’s Bar, L.O.V.E., My Sexy Guitar

CROSSING BORDERS Evelyn Rubio (SeaSpeed Productions) **** ¾

Looks like J-Lo, sings like Etta James, plays the sax like Candy Dulfer.  On her new album Crossing Borders, Evelyn Rubio blends Mexico City with Mississippi into an exotic, soulful bluesy stew.

Crossing Borders is an album in which I allowed myself to explore different sounds from what I had been doing” Evelyn says of her latest release.  “Blues, rock, jazz and a little country weave love and heartbreak stories, not being able to understand pain and injustice and the pride of recognizing where I am going and where I come from.” She had lots of help in the studio to push her vision in a different direction, incredible players with a list of their own credits as long as your arm, too many to mention here but worth checking out when you pick up the album.  On top of being a solid blues singer, she plays a pretty mean tenor sax as well- talk about being the whole package!

Crossing Borders is 12 songs, plus 3 of those recorded in Spanish as ‘bonus tracks’.  The most surprising and delightful song in the whole bunch is a reinterpretation of the Mexican standard Besame Mucho.  In the hands of Rubio and her musical conspirators it is re-cast here as hardcore Delta blues and it works like a hot-damn.  Throughout the disc she acquits herself as a vocalist with muscle and grace, and the musicians backing her- the bands from the LA and Austin sessions- play with rugged elegance and style.  Put them all together, and the results range between rock solid and rapturous.

As an average troll I tend to be immediately suspicious of impossibly good looking people being able to do anything artistically worthwhile, but with Evelyn Rubio’s Crossing Borders I’ll gladly admit that she has serious musical talent.  Not sure what I expected from the woman in the glitzy picture on the cover, but putting her together with these particular musicians was a master stroke- this is one hell of a record.

KEY CUTS:  One More Last Time, Besame Mucho, Cruel

SKYLINE DRIVE Scott Ellison (Red Parlor Records) *****

Rough-edged blues played with jazz fluency- that’s what Scott offers on Skyline Drive.  This is one of those albums where you say “not bad” after you first put it on, but by the time you get to the end you’ll be going “wait a minute, that was actually great!”

Ellison’s sandpaper vocals rough these songs up in just the right way but it’s his guitar playing that really got my attention; muscular but articulate, smooth when he needs to be but he can thrown down with the best of them.  Hailing from Tulsa, Scott has performed and/or shared the stage with Joe Cocker, Levon Helm, Buddy Guy and BB King. He opened for BB in his hometown in 2009 and, according to his website, it was the thrill of his life, being called out to play twice during King’s set. “I’ll never forget that moment” he says. “It was the musical thrill of my life, having (my) idol call (me) out on stage!”

Skyline Drive is the product of a prolific songwriter. In addition to playing with other artists, Ellison has also penned tunes that have appeared in hit TV shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Saving Grace and Joan Of Arcadia- dude gets around!  Blues In Britain notes that Scott’s music here reflects influences from the British Blues Invasion, Motown and Memphis R&B, which could explain was this disc is so fully intoxicating.

Recorded in Tulsa and produced by Scott himself, Skyline Drive is a terrific sounding CD- I wonder if he’s considered producing other artists?  Each musician is given room to shine without stepping on each other’s toes and the whole album sounds clear and clean.

From the passionate playing to the song writing itself, there’s absolutely nothing about this album that I don’t like- that’s a pretty neat trick to pull off.


KEY CUTS:  Skyline Drive, Woman’s Got A Hold On Me, Breathe Underwater

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