UNCHAINED The BluesBones (Naked) *****
I was optimistic for this but had no idea I’d like it this much. Unchained is the 7th album for Belgium’s BluesBones and it covers a variety of blues styles with soul, groove and panache. The infectious energy will make you feel good all day long.
Unchained was recorded live in a studio setting with all the instruments captured in one take, so you get the precision of a studio recording with that live energy, almost another member of the band. As The BluesBones say, “this way the strong live reputation of the band breathes through the recording.” All band members contributed ideas to every song too, resulting in their highest level of collaboration yet. These 8 songs develop recurring themes of transition, redemption and life changing events, things all of us can relate to.
Unchained has that loose feel of a bunch of cats cutting loose on stage and having a grand old time. The grooves are focused but not screwed down tight as everyone gets the elbow room to express themselves. Nico De Cock has a gruff, soulful, passionate voice and the rest of the guys play essential roles in making a good thing great; guitarist Stef Paglia, Edwin Risbourg on the Hammond and Rhodes, Geert Boeckx on bass and Jens Roelandt behind the kit providing a flexible backbeat. There are times here as with The Tale Of Big Jim Brady that musically, the band kind of feels like The Doors in circa LA Woman.
The press info says Unchained “will surely take you on a trip to the contemporary interpretation of blues rock”, and there’s plenty of truth in that statement. Though rooted in the blues this disc has a much broader scope of expression, and these five gents play together and express themselves as one… it’s quite impressive. No matter how you’re feeling today, chances are one of these 8 songs will capture it perfectly… you’ll hear your life in these tracks.
HOT TRACKS: Chain Gang, I Cry, The Road Ahead
NELSON BLANCHARD Nelson Blanchard (White Car Records) ****
Nelson Blanchard’s new record aims to take you back down south. This self-titled beauty is a wonderful mix of old fashioned pop melodies and sentiments that may sound out of date with today’s trends, but in doing so it feels oh so right.
Nelson Blanchard has quite a musical history; at the age of 10 he was already performing in clubs with The Richard Brothers, a popular local group from Pierre Part Louisiana where he was born. He studied music in school and played in special state and district bands (like the governor’s honor band). He also studied music at LSU and Nicholls State University. He’s also a former member of the successful group LeRoux who, over the years, performed with the likes of The Allman Brothers Band Wet Willie, Journey, Kansas, Heart, The Doobie Brothers, Charlie Daniels, Foreigner, ZZ Top and quite a few more. So now you can sort of see the trail that led him to this point and this album.
Nelson Blanchard the album has many different threads like blues and southern rock, but it’s a kind of mid-70’s pop thing that I’m feeling here the most. Blanchard’s voice is certainly suitable to that, and he’s got some fine players behind him. Recorded and mixed by Nelson himself at Techno Sound in Baton Rouge, this disc has a sophisticated sound and yet not too shiny or overly polished. There are 11 songs in all including a couple of covers; Nelson’s version of Teach Me Tonight (written by Sammy Cahn & Gene De Paul) very nearly equals that of Al Jarreau which I know very, very well.
There’s a sort of innocence to the melody and lyrics of songs like Please which maybe could’ve passed for country in the 70’s era of guys like Charlie Rich. Nelson Blanchard may feel out of step with what’s happening in music at large, but that’s one of its strengths… it’s like a nice, warm hug from a long lost friend.
HOT TRACKS: Teach Me Tonight, My Heart’s In Louisiana (with John Schneider), Free Bird In The Wind
BACKBONE Deb Callahan (Blue Pearl Records) *****+
This is the 6th album for this Philly based blues singer/ songwriter, the follow-up to 2015’s Sweet Soul, and it’s a knockout. Backbone swings and grooves from the first note to the last, powered by Callahan’s powerful voice and some extremely sweet playing from her road tested all-star band. This is very likely one of the best albums you’ll hear this year; completely irresistible.
Backbone is funk with a blues soul, richly produced by guitarist Chris Arms. As a singer Deb has the power of Shemekia Copeland but with more control, and her band is absolutely stunning at every turn. It feels like the disc is built around the fat grooves laid down by bassist Garry Lee but the contributions of Allen James (guitar) and Tom Walling (drums) are equally critical ingredients in this delicious recipe; after all they’ve been playing together 16 years now, and that relationship is on full display. Backbone also features London producer/ songwriter Danny Schogger on keys and producer Arms on slide, plus a number of special guests.
Backbone is 12 cuts in all, 10 written and/or co-written by Callahan plus covers of Percy Mayfield’s Danger Zone and Sean Costello’s Anytime You Want. The disc embraces a range of rock, soul, roots and swing styles with a funk ‘n’ blues… er, ‘backbone’. It’s a record of its times, reflecting the intense impact of world events of the past few years as the songs deal with themes of uncertainty, vulnerability, polarization in beliefs, freedom, taking a stand for what you believe in but most importantly, letting go. As you consider the lyrical messages the music itself has a relaxed yet intense focus, laid back but with a laser focus and firm grip on the groove.
I’ll give the last word to Blues Music Magazine; “Anyone who thinks contemporary blues is not evolving enough lyrically or stylistically need only have a listen Callahan’s pioneering originals here to have their faith restored.” Backbone is seriously excellent.
HOT TRACKS: What I’m Workin’ With, Big Girl Pants, Just What The Doctor Ordered
72 SEASONS Metallica (Blackened Recordings) ****
This has to be the most anticipated metal album of the year. 72 Seasons feels like a successful marriage of 80’s and post-Black Album Metallica. It’s their 11 studio album and fans have come to expect a long wait between records, but this time it was definitely worth it.
The title of the album 72 Seasons (James Hetfield wanted to call it Lux Aeterna but was out voted) is a reference to the first 18 years of life and how that shapes who we become in adulthood, and in comparing early ‘tallica to the 90’s and beyond that makes sense. It has neither the woefully thin production of records like Kill ‘Em All or the beefy Bob Rock produced albums, but it occupies a satisfying middle ground that fans of each era can enjoy. We get thrashy stuff like the title cut, and Sleepwalk My Life Away is a mid-tempo riff powered monster that’s impossible to forget.
Metallica are, of course, James Hetfield (guitar, vocals), Lars Ulrich (drums), bassist Robert Trujillo and lead guitarist Kirk Hammett. Trujillo is saying that 72 Seasons is the best Metallica album he’s been involved in since replacing Jason Newsted in 2003, and he has a point. Following Rick Rubin’s disastrous handling of Death Magnetic and the well-received but bloated Hardwired… To Self-Destruct the new album is a more focused reminder of what made Metallica great. 72 Seasons benefits greatly from the full creative participation of Hammett this time around, after the tragic loss of his cell phone packed with riff ideas left him out of the writing sessions for the previous album. His solos here are excellent too in serving the songs.
I thought I’d had my fill of Metallica and was prepared to pass on this album until I heard the Lux Aeterna and thought “Well fuck, it looks like I’m in after all, you bastards.” It seems overly long, but given that it takes them 7 or 8 years to get a new record out we probably shouldn’t quibble. Still, drop a couple of songs to save for B-sides and tighten up some of the arrangements and a really good album would’ve been great. Is 72 Seasons their best? No, but it’s the best thing they’ve done since ‘91 and that’s saying something.
HOT TRACKS: Sleepwalk My Life, Screaming Suicide, Lux Aeterna, Inamorata
CLASSIC ALBUM REVIEW
PLUG ME INTO SOMETHING Henry Gross (A&M) RELEASED: 1975
Like Atlanta Rhythm Section’s Red Tape classic review a couple of weeks ago, I discovered this while deejaying at CKQR in Castlegar, BC while still in high school. When you mention Henry Gross most people think of Shannon, a song he wrote about his Irish Setter, but that came a year later. Plug Me Into Something is a curiously potent mix of styles with rock ‘n’ roll as the through line. I’ve worn out 3 copies of this record I’ve played it THAT much.
It might surprise you to know that Gross used to play guitar in Sha Na-Na; in fact he was in the band when they played Woodstock in 1969. But there’s no grease ball doo-wop stuff here- from the muscular opening cut One More Tomorrow to the gentle country shuffle of The Driver’s Engine and the wistful Tomorrow’s Memory Lane that closes out the record, this album should have been huge. I don’t have session notes to refer to but I remember reading in the credits that drummer Alan Shwartzberg played on the record. If you’re familiar with Alice Cooper’s early solo stuff, then you’ll recognize his sound and feel here.
Plug Me Into Something is 10 songs and runs somewhere just over 30 minutes, with only the last cut running 4:00. What makes it work so well is the songwriting and sonic diversity as well as the playing; Henry’s voice and guitar, and how together he sounds with the band. Yeah I prefer the rock stuff but I have a soft spot for the ballads too. This is one of those rare records with precious little filler… maybe the country-tinged stuff, but that’s it. Let me put it this way; if I had to put together a “Desert Island Classics” list, Plug Me Into Something would be on it.
HOT TRACKS: One More Tomorrow, Dixie Spider-Man, Tomorrow’s Memory Lane