ALBUM REVIEWS FOR MARCH 26TH, 2016 by John The Rock Doctor

HEAL THYSELF PART I: INSTINCT Steven Page (Warner)This is Page’s second album of all-original material since leaving Barenaked Ladies in early 2009, following up 2010’s Page One.  Recorded mostly with Craig Northey & The Odds, but also including his live band The Original Six and recalling the magic of The Beatles and The Beach Boys, Heal Thyself is an enjoyable and engaging album.Having moved to the U.S. several years ago, Page comments here on how political and spiritual forces there have cheapened art and science. “I’ve always had a problem describing myself as an artist, and it got even harder after moving to the U.S. where that word has been devalued considerably” Steve says.  “There was always a sense of guilt that I didn’t have a ‘real’ job, and that got channelled into some of these new songs, almost as a reaction to the mistrust and spitefulness that pervades so much of our current discourse in North America.”I’ve been an Odds fan for many years, which makes Heal Thyself an easy album to enjoy.  From straightforward songs like Here’s What It Takes or Surprise, Surprise (the first single) to the rollicking Caribbean flavour of Mama, there are some different musical flavours to sample here.  The second cut, The Work At Hand starts with a bit of a techno ambush, but gives way to a solid and enjoyable beat. And I suppose the dropping of the F-bomb could be construed as an attempt to distance himself from his old band.Steve may never outrun the shadow of BNL, if only because he was one of the two lead vocalists, a big part of their sound and virtually anything jaunty, upbeat and acoustic will make people think of them. But if he keeps making records like this and continues to collaborate with guys like Craig Northey, he will definitely have a second act- and that’s rare.  “Sometimes the things we deride contain the very things we need to make us whole” he concludes. “In that sense, there’s some irony in calling the album Heal Thyself- I almost called it The Golden Age Of Television.”ESSENTIALS:  Surprise, Surprise, Mama, No Song Left To Save Me ACOUSTIC CLASSICS Peter Frampton (I-Tunes purchase)Truth in advertising here as Frampton gives us stripped down versions of some of his biggest tunes- just voice and guitar with, one would assume, overdubbed solos.  This disc serves two purposes; it reminds us of Peter Frampton’s gifts as a songwriter, and it underlines what a fine guitarist he has become.As everybody knows, Frampton’s biggest record was Frampton Comes Alive in the mid-70’s, an unexpected monster that everybody owned.  In the wake of it, though, perhaps thanks to an unfortunate bare-chested photo on the cover of Rolling Stone, he was branded as merely another pretty boy and a pop lightweight.  Sure, albums and songs like I’m In You didn’t help, but there’s always been more to this guy than meets the eye.  A former schoolmate of David Jones (Bowie) and one of the guys that founded Humble Pie as a young lad, we sold him short.  I, for one, ignored his music for decades.The turning point for me was 2006’s Grammy winning instrumental record Fingerprints, a disc I purchased on a whim and ended up enjoying immensely.  Peter Frampton was finally being recognized as a guitarist, which no doubt pleased him immensely, and it pleased me too- I’ve bought the 3 records he’s put out since (including this one) and consider it money spectacularly well spent.As you would expect from a record titled Acoustic Classics, Frampton plays some of his biggest hits with just voice and guitar, along with several lesser known songs that likely only the most ardent fan would know, thanks to his public obscurity.  That, however, doesn’t make the songs unworthy- perhaps he has judged correctly, as his reputation as a player and performer eclipses his past, that these are songs worthy of re-consideration.Acoustic Classics is purely enjoyable on the basis of Peter Frampton’s performance alone, stripping these 11 songs back to their barest essence and revealing them to be exactly what they are- some pretty damn good tunes.  Of course, being familiar with previous versions of these songs and being able to compare the past to the present just makes listening to this disc that much more fun.  No, I don’t have everything Peter Frampton has ever done, but I still consider myself a fan- and, after a few turns through Acoustic Classics, even moreso… this is extremely nice stuff.ESSENTIALS:  Lines On My Face, Baby I Love Your Way, Do You Feel Like We Do FULL CIRCLE Loretta Lynn (Sony Legacy)Ms. Lynn’s new album is, frankly, one of the most charming records I’ve heard in my life.  Produced by Loretta’s daughter Patsy Lynn Russell and John Carter Cash (son of Johnny and June), it takes a broad look at her history and legacy with 13 new recordings- a mix of the Appalachian songs she learned as a child and newer versions of past hits.In her 80’s now, Lynn still has a fine, steady and sassy voice.  The album starts with a conversation, between Loretta and the aforementioned producers I would assume, talking about the first song she ever wrote, (Whispering Sea) and sets an easy tone for the remainder of the album.  In liner notes Loretta says “”I have never stopped making music.  I will always be a songwriter/ singer, a recording artist. It is who I am. This record holds the first of many songs I recorded at the Cash Cabin.  They are all special to me and I hope everyone likes them.  It was a family affair.”  We do ma’m, we do.While I’ve never been much of a country music fan, I gained a truckload of respect for and became a fan of Loretta Lynn after seeing the 1980 film Coal Miner’s Daughter starring Sissy Spacek.  Everything Ms. Lynn has achieved she worked unbelievably hard for, and I respect that.  The songs she’s written are straightforward and easy to digest stories inspired by her own life.  Full Circle is a wonderful sounding album- kudos to Loretta and the musicians involved for intimate performances, and to Patsy and John for doing a stellar job in choosing the right songs for this record and bringing them to life.Guest vocalists on Full Circle include Elvis Costello (on Everything It Takes) and Willie Nelson (on Lay Me Down), but that’s just icing on an already great tasting cake. From recording her own stuff to some of the songs of her youth, this album really does bring her full circle, showing a woman with a big heart that, on the other hand, doesn’t take any guff from anybody.  If you wonder who Loretta Lynn is this disc will tell you, and you’ll fall in love.  From her own comments I gather that Full Circle is just the first of a number of records to come.  If that’s the case, and I hope it is, I’m already looking forward to the next one.  This is simply wonderful.ESSENTIALS:  Fist City, Whispering Sea, Always On My MindXI Metal Church (Rat Pak)Hard rock legends Metal Church are screaming for vengeance on their new album XI. With the return of vocalist Mike Howe, the stage is set for a return to the glorious 80’s and 90’s.I can’t help but notice similarities between Metal Church and Black Sabbath, both having long careers, and the guitarist in each band being the only one to stay the course. The reunion with Mike Howe began in July of 2014 when he started working with Metal Church guitarist Kurdt Vanderhoof on a side project with Nigel Glockler of Saxon. Through that, Kurdt convinced Mike that returning to Metal Church was the thing to do, to try and recapture some of their 80’s magic. “At first I struggled with the decision to come back” admits Howe, “but after hearing the riffs that Kurdt was writing I just couldn’t resist; the music called to me and I wanted to be a part of it.”Metal Church started out in ‘Frisco in 1980 before moving to Aberdeen, Washington and releasing their self-titled debut in 1984, and have been a staple of the worldwide metal scene since then. In that time ‘metal’ has splintered into an infinite number of subgenres, but these guys aren’t afraid of being traditionalists. The times on XI where they brush elbows with speed metal, on tracks like Reset, tend to be my least favorite, whereas most of the other songs have groove and feel- something speed metal completely lacks, at least to my ears. Vanderhoof is an excellent guitar player and, overall, I think he’s steering the band in the right direction.Ultimately, XI sounds like a cross between Judas Priest and Accept, traditional metal bands that largely ignore changing trends around them to stick to what they do best, and that’s an extremely good thing. If you see a cream colored PT Cruiser out on the highway and the guy behind the wheel has the stereo turned up impossibly loud, it’s probably me listening to the new Metal Church album.ESSENTIALS: Killing Your Time, Sky Falls In, Needle & SutureAPOCALYPSE AGAIN Thunderstone (AFM)This is, I think, the 6th album for these Finnish power metalers, hailing the return of original singer Pasi Rantanen. Tight musicianship and whipsaw riffs (try Wounds) make for a pretty exciting listen.Cool cover art for Apocalypse Again, a wild vision of the earth exploding- if I’d seen this in the record racks I would’ve bought it for that alone, but the music is the payoff. Citing bands like Stratovarius and Rainbow (the early stuff, no doubt) as influences, these guys have a taste for adventurous and dramatic arrangements that will have you either raising your first in the air or thinking “Hey guys, chill.” Kudos to the producer for a job spectacularly well done- a thick bottom end, huge walls of guitars, and guitar solos that still manage to stand out on top of that.Some modern European metal is so over the top as to be ridiculously dramatic, almost laughable, but that’s not the case with Thunderstone. Despite the archaic name, this group is seriously talented- they know when to shred and when to throttle back whenever it suits the subject matter or the song, and Rantanen is an excellent singer with a keen sense of his surroundings. At times they seem to approach the edge of overdoing it, yet never seem to reach that tipping point.A breathtaking combination of chops and execution, the press kit got it right when they called Thunderstone’s Apocalypse Again “melodic metal perfection”.ESSENTIALS: Veterans Of The Apocalypse, Wounds, The PathSTRANGE RIDER Noah Zacharin (independent)7th album here from this Toronto-based singer/ songwriter, an eclectic mix of jazz, folk, blues and R&B. Strange Rider, not unlike a Paul Simon record, is a wonderful ride.This disc is both relaxed and richly resonant, songs that possess an emotional eloquence that you’d have to be deaf to miss. Strange Rider wasn’t just slapped together in a matter of days or weeks, and that attention to detail shows. It was recorded over 2 & ½ years with producer Douglas September at his Toronto studio, The Mines. “I did things I’ve never done before, like tracking voice and guitar separately” says Zacharin. “Douglas is easy to work with, has a great sense of humor, and his studio is a very comfortable environment.”The bio mentions that Noah is a “widely published poet” and that makes complete sense- he has a way with words that invites you in and asks you to take a chair while he tells you a tale. As a writer of a completely different sort I’m attracted to that and find myself drawn in as much by the poetry of these songs as the sound of them. While the acoustic guitar is the main engine that drives much of this album the combination of instruments, from the Hammond B-3 sounds to Noah’s often haunting electric leads (he’s a wonderful guitarist) and understated but insistent rhythm section, Strange Rider often feels hypnotic. At times it’s like getting lost in a dream- always a worthwhile experience.There are certain kinds of albums you throw on when you’re having a big party, but Strange Rider is more like the soundtrack to a gathering- having a few friends over, maybe talking about stuff after you’ve had a couple of cocktails, if you get the difference. This disc is that rare combination of thoughtful and entertaining- makes me feel cool just for enjoying it!ESSENTIALS: Find My Baby, Night (And There’s Nothing Whole), The Way Love CallsHEAL MY SOUL Jeff Healey (Conveyor/ Universal)Hard to believe that Jeff’s been gone for 8 years, harder still to believe that this album has remained unheard by the public at large all this time. I’m not just overjoyed at hearing new Jeff Healey stuff- I truly believe that this, released on what would have been his 50th birthday, is the hottest thing since his 1988 debut.It’s well known that Jeff was more of a jazzbo at heart and somewhat uncomfortable with his status as a rock/ blues icon. In an interview, Stony Plain records’ label chief Holger Petersen told me that Jeff had told him that he wished he’d turned to performing jazz 10 years earlier than he did, instead of at the end of his career and life. Still, he played with fire and passion, as did his band mates, that few others in this genre could match. His musical past is littered with records filled to the edges with incendiary playing, some admittedly better or more urgent than the rest. As the first record of new Jeff Healey compositions in over 15 years, these are some of the most powerful and impassioned performances he ever committed to tape.Under the direct supervision of the Jeff Healey estate, these tracks were painstakingly restored and brought to life. I’m astounded that this record wasn’t issued when Healey recorded it- was he tired of the guitar God thing by then and wanting to pull in a different direction? Did his record company at the time (Arista, I think) feel it was too similar to previous material or consider him a dinosaur? I suppose none of that matters now, because we have 12 new tracks to snuggle in with all of the other Jeff Healey CD’s on our shelves.It seems a fair idea, as a previously unknown album, to compare Heal My Soul to Jeff’s previous rock albums, and in that regard it hits me as a cross between See The Light and Get Me Some. It reminds me, too, of his version of I’m Tore Down from the Roadhouse soundtrack, but those songs were recorded around the same time as Light. Healey’s playing on many of these tracks is positively ferocious, except when he throttles back of an acoustic ballad like All The Saints.Taking a cue from the Led Zeppelin catalogue too, Heal My Soul is an object lesson in light and shade, a dynamic that records like the over-produced Hell To Pay didn’t really have. I like it when he can rip your head off with an unbelievable solo, but his acoustic work on this set is surprisingly tasty too. To my ears this is the best that Jeff ever played in the rock context, and the songs are some of the best he ever wrote as well.Too bad Jeff Healey isn’t here to enjoy the praise that is surely headed his way with Heal My Soul. I’ve been a fan since his very first record, See The Light, and far from being a collection of throwaways, history will judge this one as one of the very best in his catalogue.ESSENTIALS: Baby Blue, Daze Of The Night, All The SaintsLONELY IS A LIFETIME The Wild Feathers (Warner)I get scads of downloads every month, more than I could ever possibly listen to let alone review, and sometimes I’ll open one on a whim. That’s the case with The Wild Feathers’ 2nd album, and I was pleasantly surprised at finding something quite likeable inside.I was drawn to this one by a review line from The New York Times; “Classic rock DJ’s have been itching for this band for years. The Wild Feathers channel their roots with unmistakable frantic jams with languid, beatific moments of My Morning Jacket and Neil Young.” The description was enough to warrant a quick listen and before I knew it, I was up to me knees in the record.  Lonely Is A Lifetime is a mix of sharp, angular 80’s pop/rock with a 60’s sense of verve and melodic adventure- a pretty entertaining combination that, at times, kind of feels like vintage Red Rider.Lonely Is A Lifetime’s vibe can be chalked up to the band having spent so much time on the road touring for their first record, 2013’s self-titled debut. “We progressed as a live band” says singer/ guitarist Ricky Young. “When we wrote our first record we knew what we liked, but we didn’t really know who we were yet. After playing the same songs every night, you eventually start leaning towards other things. We wrote the music that we wanted to play, and that’s what you’ll hear on Lonely Is A Lifetime.”Written in a cabin in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and Barcelona Spain, and recorded in Nashville with producer Jay Joyce (Cage The Elephant, Wallflowers, Amos Lee), this disc sounds precise and spacey at the same time. The combination of tight vocal harmonies and old school studio tricks like reverb is weirdly hypnotic and quite likeable. The Wild Feathers made this record for themselves, instead of trying to emulate whatever the latest top forty sounds are, resulting in a disc with personality and charm in abundance, the sort of thing that will stick with you instead of just blending into the background.Relix Magazine gives Lonely Is A Lifetime just the right description in calling it “boisterous and impassioned, reverberating with a raw quality”, and I second that. Nice work, guys.ESSENTIALS: Lonely Is A Lifetime, Don’t Ask Me To Change, Into The SunOURBOROS Ray Lamontagne (RCA)I fell in love with Ray’s music when I saw him on Letterman playing a song from God Willing And The Creek Don’t Rise back in 2010 or so.  I missed one album in between (so many albums, so little time), which brings us to Ourboros.  In many ways the soul of these two records are linked- but sonically, they couldn’t be more different.What initially threw me is that where Creek has a smaller, intimate sound suited to dessert boot wearin’ storytelling, Ourboros is big, brash, and verging on psychedelic. Some reverb on all the vocals and, loud electric guitars collide over dreamy choral background vocals.  I had to go back and listen to God Willing to make sure I was remembering it correctly, and that I was dealing with the same guy.  As I listened deeper to a record that I resisted on the first few tracks, that breathy vocal that is Ray’s signature, and the certain something to the rhythm of the lyrics assured that indeed I was.The difference in sound of these two records are my only basis of comparison so far, and the more I listen to each to more I realize that they’re different sides of the same guy.  Ourboros is quite trippy, almost a cross between Robert Plant’s latter day solo stuff and maybe Dark Side-era Pink Floyd. Produced by Ray Lamontagne and Jim James, it’s the closest thing to an inner freak-out album you’re going to get as the music breaks down barriers that might not otherwise let the lyrics in to take root and show you what Ray is really trying to say.  Making a disc that doesn’t make nice at first is a risk, and with just a handful of listens that really starts to pay off in spades.My ultimate judgement of Ourboros may never be known, always shifting, even to me- but I sense a deep journey ahead to peel back the layers of what is going on here, one very much worth taking with rich rewards being offered along the way- I’m in.ESSENTIALS:  Hey No Pressure, A Murmuration Of Starlings, While It Still Beats YOU AND I Jeff Buckley (Columbia)Surely this is the mother lode for Jeff Buckley fans. Though he only recorded one proper album and was working on another, to be titled My Sweetheart The Drunk when he was killed in a freak drowning accident in 1997 in Memphis, many are curious, even hungry to hear every note he sang and played.  Just Jeff’s voice and guitar, You And I gives another glimpse into the soul of the man.In this CD package, the liner essay by Mary Guilbert outlines the difficulty in looking after the legacy of a dead musician.  Of this particular collection she says “This was at the height of his café days as he called them, so his repertoire was broad and deep.  He had to hold his repeat audiences night after night, week after week, so he peppered his set lists with countless ‘oldies but goodies’ (as) he taught himself songs made popular by a panoply of artists going all the way back to Robert Johnson.”In these ten tracks you’ll find only 2 Buckley originals, along side covers of songs by people like Dylan, Sly & The Family Stone, Morrissey and even Led Zeppelin. As Mary’s liner essay says, “These performances are un-tuned, unaltered and unedited… it’s just you and him and the guys in the booth”, playing back for you and I exactly as they happened, including Jeff explaining a song like Dream Of You And I as he played it- breathtaking.Ultimately, You And I is a rare and intimate portrait of an exquisitely talented artist at his most vulnerable- just Buckley’s voice and acoustic guitar with no backing band or studio trickery to ‘spice things up’.  This is about as raw and honest as it ever gets, which might make you a tad uncomfortable at first- I know it did me- but if you look at like just a guy in your room playing a guitar and singing a few songs, or maybe walking into a small café with a guy in the corner throwing these songs at you, you’ll come away with a rewarding listening experience.ESSENTIALS:  Dream Of You And I, Everyday People, Night Flight


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