FEBRUARY 2020 Album reviews podcast #2
By John Kereiff.
AMERICAN STANDARD James Taylor (Fantasy/ Universal Music Canada) ******
James Taylor joins artists like Willie Nelson and Rod Stewart to try his hand at ‘American Standards’, songs you know from your parents’ or grandparents’ record collection. What sets Taylor’s album apart from the others, however, is that he makes these revered old songs sound as if he’d written them himself.
It takes guts to re-imagine some of the 20th century’s most beloved tunes, and that’s just what James has done on American Standard. A new album from him always feels like a warm hug from an old friend, and I daresay that’s doubly true here. The arrangements are stripped down, framed by his wonderful finger picking technique on acoustic guitar, whereas they were originally written and played on piano. Taylor enlists help from drummer Steve Gadd and upright bassist Viktor Krauss, plus long time collaborators/ producers Dave O’Donnell and John Pizzarelli . I remember some of these from my parents’ records; Nat King Cole’s Almost Like Being In Love (which plays over the end credits to Groundhog Day) and Andy Williams’s Moon River in particular. It’s a trip, hearing fresh versions of timeless classics I grew up that keep the originals in mind.
American Standard has a clean, impeccable, simple sound as do most of Taylor’s records like 2015’s Before This World, his first #1 album. His easygoing vocals bring you closer to the songs themselves and the exquisite, unhurried musicianship throughout is a rare treat in a noisy and chaotic world. American Standard was recorded primarily at his home studio in Massachusetts, plus locations in LA and Nashville. It’s one of the warmest records I’ve heard since… well, his last one. I realize Taylor’s music isn’t to everyone’s taste, but there are times when listening to him is essential for my sanity. I will be coming back to American Standard often.
KEY TRACKS: My Blue Heaven, Almost Like Being In Love, Teach Me Tonight
NOWHERESVILLE Dirt Road Opera (independent) ****+
When you talk about country music today you’re talking about slick pop confections virtually indistinguishable from mainstream rock & roll; Dirt Road Opera are different. Nowheresville is authentic and full of heart as it acknowledges what makes classic country great, without sounding cheesy.
The band started in 2016 when Rachel Matkin and Barry Mathers, former band mates in The Cruzeros, teamed up again. Their mutual love of the music of Buddy & Julie Miller, Steve Earle, John Prine, Fred Eaglesmith and Gillian Welch dictated, in part, where this new partnership might lead them. Members came and went as the band developed and when Jim Ryan (also a former Cruzero) signed up, things came into focus.
Dirt Road Opera are about as country as early Eagles, with a distinct and satisfying sound. The blend of Rachel’s and Barry’s voices reminds me somewhat of Alison Krauss & Robert Plant; separately they are distinct but putting them together creates something entirely new and adding Jim Ryan to the mix gives it more oomph. Each song brings something fresh to the table, and the instrumentation- pedal steel, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, drums and rockin’ guitars- offers an engaging array of textures.
If you need to call Nowheresville something I’d say country with glimpses of rock & roll… it’s music with deep, deep soul. This feels like a combination of Blue Rodeo, Blackie & The Rodeo Kings, Tom Petty and maybe Emmylou Harris filtered through early Steve Earle, and there’s a freedom in the songs that suggests the early to mid 70`s, when music genres were unimportant. What IS important is do the songs reach you? Does the singing and playing inspire you? I can answer a resounding “yes” to both, and so this disc makes me feel good… at the end of the day, that’s what matters.
KEY CUTS: Rattlin’ Bones 2, Into your World, Horseshoe Turn
RETROSPECTIVE TOUR 2019 Layla Zoe (independent) *****
In a world of choreography, auto tune and lip synching, Layla Zoe is the real deal. A powerhouse blues belter in every sense of the term, Retrospective Tour 2019 puts her talents and those of her band mates on full display. RT-19 is electrifying.
Born and raised on Vancouver Island, she has been living in Germany and touring Europe since 2013. Retrospective is live versions of songs from her early catalogue performed in a club setting, and they’re intense. There are no barriers Layla won’t cross, any walls she won’t kick down, and across these two discs she lets it ALL hang out. She released an EP in 2005 but starts with material from 2006’s full length Shades Of Blue and works her way up to more recent stuff over the course of the record. She’s played along side blues legends like John Mayall, Coco Montoya and Walter “Wolfman” Washington, and from what I’ve heard of her previous records (and this one too) she absolutely belongs in their company. Performing at blues and folk festivals all over the world, she’s at home on stage where she really tears it up.
There are two ways to approach Retrospective Tour 2019, as a rockin’ blues set or a blues album that rocks, and both are equally valid. While I do have 5 of her albums in my collection I don’t have them all; this also serves as a Layla Zoe primer, a chance to dig deeper into a wealth of incredible songs. Great rhythm section here, straight ahead and no nonsense, and the firepower of guitarist Chris Matthews is equal to Zoe’s vocal theatrics. She has an easy relationship with her audience here, which makes 2019 that much more fun.
Though I’ve been aware of Layla since 2011’s Sleep Little Girl, it was 2016’s Breaking Free and the song Highway Of Tears that made me a fan. Sad to say that song isn’t covered here but there’s so much great stuff that it hardly matters. Retrospective Tour 2019 is kick-ass blues played with rock & roll excitement and passion; it doesn’t get any better than this.
KEY CUTS: DISC ONE: Leave You For Good, Little Sister, Never Met A Man. DISC TWO: Backstage Queen, Ghost Train, I Shall Be Released.
FALLEN Archon Angel (Frontiers) ****
If Queensryche and Savatage got drunk and made a baby, it would sound like this. A new band project for producer/ guitarist Aldo Lonobile and former Savatage vocalist Zak Stevens Fallen, their debut album, combines symphonic majesty with hard driving, brute force rock & roll. It’s big fun.
Aldo and Zak met during the making of Timo Tolkki’s Avalon’s Return To Eden album. They hit it off and talked to Frontiers about making music together and were greeted with enthusiasm. The album centres around the character Archon, a modern day angel figure, essentially a story idea taken from Gnosticism and supplanted into modern times. The Archon is a medium who brings messages to God, and who is also called upon to help the people of earth through frightening and turbulent times.
Joining Aldo and Zak on this adventure are bassist Yves Campion and drummer Marco Lazzarini, with Antonio Agate joining them in the studio on keys. Comparisons have been made between Fallen and classic Savatage albums like Gutter Ballet and Edge Of Thorns. This is guitar-driven rock & roll and can be enjoyed on that level alone, but piecing together the story of Zak Stevens’ lyrics as you follow along is half the fun. Zak sounds like Geoff Tate with that flair for dramatic storytelling, Lazzarini’s surgically precise drumming and Lonobile’s acrobatic guitar playing and penchant for rather heroic-sounding riffs also raise the excitement level quite a bit. No guts no glory, as they say.
I’ve often said that classical and metal music aren’t very far apart and Archon Angel’s Fallen certainly bears this out. The combination of majesty and brute strength along with an intriguing storyline is compelling. I think I’d better turn this up some more so the neighbours across the street can enjoy it too.
KEY CUTS: Rise, Fallen, Hit The Wall
REBEL MOON BLUES Sass Jordan (Stony Plain) *****
It would seem as though Sass Jordan has finally and publicly admitted the truth; she’s a blues singer. According to Wikipedia Rebel Moon Blues is her 9th album. At just 8 songs (“perfect for vinyl” Sass notes) it gathers highly charged versions of 7 blues favourites and one original into a highly entertaining record.
Sass Jordan has always been a blues singer, it’s just taken her 40 years to realize it. “I was very slow on the uptake” she laughs. “It was one of those things that’s so dang obvious you just can’t see it. But yeah, the blues has always been a huge part of my life, it’s a big part of what I grew up with.” Fans of her early stuff like her debut album Tell Somebody (’88) with singles like the title track and So Hard will have no trouble connecting that Sass with this one. This is a pure blues album and you can really feel that this is the kind of music she was born to sing.
Rebel Moon Blues was recorded in just 3 days at Toronto’s Cantebury Music Company with Jordan and her band (The Champagne Hookers) all playing live in the same room as Monkeyjunk’s Steve Marriner added some sweet-ass harp. “The energy is so different when you’re playing live” she says. “It’s a different frequency, a different vibe, it’s very joyous… it’s like you’re right there with us.” She made the right choices, too, in terms of songs for her and the band to play; the Willie Dixon standard My Babe, Taj Mahal’s update of Sleepy John Estes’ Leaving Trunk, Rory Gallagher’s version of J.B. Hutto’s Too Much Alcohol, Freddie King’s In The Palace of The King and Gary Moore’s Still Got The Blues. It’s not a stretch to call this album a tour de force.
There’s something thrilling about hearing a singer totally at home in her natural habitat, and that’s Sass Jordan on Rebel Moon Blues. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 11 years for her next record. Street date: March 13th.
KEY CUTS: Still Got The Blues, Leaving Trunk, Too Much Alcohol
HIGH RISK, LOW REWARD Ryan Perry (Ruf) *** ½
The former leader of the Homemade Jamz Blues Band out of Mississippi steps out on his own here for his first ever solo album. High Risk, Low Reward is soulful, slick, occasionally raucous blues. Though still in his twenties, Ryan’s blues are all grown up.
In 2007, Ryan Perry was just 13 when his band (with his siblings) took second place at the 23rd annual International Blues Challenge in Memphis. A decade later, his song writing and playing chops are more intense, that much more mature. High Risk was tracked in Berlin and produced by Roger Inniss and overseen by label chief Thomas Ruf. 11 songs in all here, only 3 of which are covers; BB King’s Why I Sing The Blues, Willie Dixon’s Evil is Going On and Wilson Blount’s Oh No. While the production can be a little shiny, Perry’s playing is quite ferocious and the tunes cover quite a wide range of themes that anyone with a bit of life experience can relate to.
Of his first solo effort Ryan says “originally I wanted to keep the Jamz vibe going, but while writing I discovered that my musical taste has changed. This album branches out in some areas, holds on a little tighter in others. I always play how I feel.” Ain’t Afraid To Eat Alone is funky and heartfelt while Homesick is a mid-tempo funk/ blues that is emotionally heavy. Of the song Pride he notes that it’s him “acknowledging my prideful and sometimes toxic ways and hoping I can change them before the one I love leaves me.” As someone currently married for the third time, I can definitely relate.
High Risk, Low Reward is a bit slicker than I like my blues, but I can relate to the emotional content of the songs. Plus I enjoy Perry’s guitar playing and singing and the tight swing of his band. Perry writes about the music itself in Changing Blues, noting that “many people are one sided when it comes to the blues, but the blues has changed a lot in the last twenty years- what will it sound like in twenty more?” Good question; and I’m sure Ryan Perry will be there to tell us how it is.
KEY CUTS: Homesick, Why I Sing The Blues, Hard Times
MAD WORLD Shakra (AFM) *** ½
These crazy Swiss bastards have been making high octane rock & roll for 25 years. If you like what Scorpions have been throwing down lo these many years, Shakra’s Mad World is an album you need to add to your collection.
That this album feels so much like Scorps is because of two things; catchy riffs that stick in your head, and singer Mark Fox sounds a lot like Klaus Meine. The songs are hard as nails but melodic, what I call “Camaro rock & roll”. Not sure who the producer is, but this is one of the best produced hard rock albums I’ve heard in quite awhile. On their 12th album, the guys really nailed it.
Lead guitarist Thom Blunier says “I’m extremely proud and thankful that this band is still existing after 25 years of rock & roll (and I) know how precious and exceptional this is. I’m ready for the next 25 years!” It is a volatile lifestyle, and you gotta admire a group of guys that can stick it out. Mad World and the albums that came before it rely on a tried and true 5-way metal recipe, at least in part; 2 guitar players, bass, drums and front man/ singer. This disc is what rock & roll used to be and maybe needs to be again… a straight down the highway, 4-on-the-floor exercise in letting your ya-ya’s out.
At one end of Mad World Shakra opens with the scorched earth rocker Fireline and closes the record out at the other end with an epic power ballad in New Tomorrow. This doesn’t have the brutality or unbridled aggression of ‘modern’ or ‘black’ metal, it’s more like the energetic, tuneful vibe the 80’s is known and maligned unfairly for. How long this one will stay with me I can’t say but right now, with the volume wayyy up, Shakra’s new album is rocking my world. Street date: Feb.28th
KEY CUTS: Fireline, A Roll Of The Dice, New Tomorrow
ORDINARY MAN Ozzy Osbourne (Epic) ****
Ozzy’s latest solo album, his 12th overall and first since 2010’s Scream, harkens back to his mid-80’s stuff. Ordinary Man is more straight up rock than his last few discs, and for that alone we should be grateful.
We’ve known this was coming since before Christmas when the record company started issuing singles to generate some excitement; first was Under The Graveyard in November followed by Straight To Hell and then the title track, a duet with Elton John, which has gotten a mixed reaction. According to Oz the disc came together relatively quickly, thanks to Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith and GNR bassist Duff McKagan. “Duff and Chad came in and we would go in and jam during the day and I would go work out the songs in the evenings” Ozzy says. “I really hope people listen to it and enjoy it, because I put my heart and soul into this album.” To that point Ordinary Man does sound like him, whereas Scream and Black Rain, as enjoyable as they are, were mainly production pieces with Osbourne’s voice being almost incidental.
Produced by Andrew Watt, Ordinary Man has a diversity of style that’s been missing from Ozzy’s records for awhile. The punk drive of It’s A Raid (with Post Malone) was a surprise, and the ballad with Elton is a welcome shift in gears from the balls to the wall rockers, while still other cuts will feel more familiar and comfortable to long time fans. Aside from Duff, Chad and Elton, other musicians involved include producer Watt on guitar, Slash, Tom Morello, Post Malone, and keyboard player Charlie Puth. The rap-centric Take What You Want with Malone taking the lead is curiously likeable.
Is Ordinary Man Ozzy Osbourne’s best solo album? Not even close; to me that will always be No More Tears- but for this late in the game it’s quite good. With the recent disclosure of Ozzy’s health issues- he’s cancelled yet another tour- it’s not unreasonable to think that this may be his last hurrah. If so, it’s not a bad one to go out on.
KEY CUTS: Straight To Hell, Ordinary Man, Take What You Want
EVERYTHING CAN CHANGE Adam Karch (independent) *****
This is the 5th album for this gifted troubadour. Everything Can Change is like a scenic bus ride across the country as his hybrid acoustic blues and precise finger picking style leave an imprint on the soul. ‘Americana’ is the label some put on this but call it what you will- it resonates with me as deeply as Matt Andersen’s records.
Everything Can Change is a mix of originals and cover songs, featuring Adam with his trio alongside solo acoustic performances. Whether singing his own stuff or covering JJ Cale, Bob Dylan or Robert Johnson as he does here, Karch has the ease and confidence of a born storyteller. If he’s singing it he means it and the emotional heft of each song rings true… you can feel that power as it thrums through each.
If you’re familiar with finger pickers like Kelly Joe Phelps or Chet Atkins, then you’ll get to know Everything Can Change easily. Karch combines a percussiveness with his picking, making the music feel kind of like an intimate hootenanny, a good time as he tackles some occasionally dark material. Adam has appeared at quite a few festivals, from Pensacola to Vancouver Island and he surely must hold audiences in his thrall… I’m feeling that magic and I’m just listening to a download on my computer!
Everything Can Change encapsulates almost everything I love about music regardless of genre, which he sums up in the first track, It’s Your Song. “When you are lost and broken and have nothing left, the beauty of music can carry you over any obstacles” Adam notes. “Playing music is a healing thing you can offer to anyone.” It’s the absolute truth; I’ve lost track of the number of times a good song has stopped me from doing something stupid or pulled me back from the edge. This album sounds beautiful and feels beautiful too. When you put it on it feels like everything is going to be okay; so listen to it often.
KEY CUTS: It’s Your Song, After Midnight (JJ Cale), Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright (Bob Dylan)
WEATHER Huey Lewis & The News (New Hulex/ BMG) ****
Huey’s first album of new material since 2001’s Plan B, 10th overall, and the record that almost wasn’t. If you’ve enjoyed Huey Lewis & The News’s friendly blue-eyed soul sound to date, Weather will satisfy.
Plans for a new album had been in the air since 2012 and a new song, Her Love is Killing Me, made it into the set as they toured in the mid 2010’s. By the end of 2017 Huey and the band had recorded a handful of new songs, with release anticipated sometime in 2018. HOWEVER… in January of that year Lewis was diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease, which affects the inner ear and impacts hearing ability & balance. Understandably, all future live performances were cancelled and the album put on hold.
But now its 2020, Weather has been released and it’s pretty much what I wanted it to be. Back in ’83 Huey Lewis & The News’s Sports was one of those records that everybody had, and I do mean EVERYBODY. While not being the planet killer that monster was, Weather stands comfortably beside it with its R&B inflected pop and rock. It’s just 7 songs at about 26 minutes, but that’s understandable given Huey’s health problems. We should think of this as an EP.
Her Love Is Killin’ Me was released as the first single last September. In December While We’re Young (arguably the weakest of the 7 songs) was issued along with the announcement that the album would be out February 14th. With an act this long in the tooth releasing new material after such a long time (I’m looking at you, Aerosmith and Kiss) the reaction is usually “who cares?” but not here. Weather is an enjoyable, playful record that reminds us of why we like this band in the first place. From the light country romp of One Of The Boys to the hard driving Hurry Back Baby it’s all here. Weather belongs right up there with Sports, Fore! And Small World.
KEY CUTS: Hurry Back Baby, Her Love Is Killin’ Me, One Of The Boys