THE ZEALOT GENE Jethro Tull (Inside Out Music) ****
This is the first album to bear the Jethro Tull name in almost 2 decades. The Zealot Gene, nearly 5 years in the making thanks in part to the pandemic, is the band’s 22nd album and harkens back to Tull’s glory days; a concept album and rampant flute solos. If records like Thick As A Brick and Aqualung float your boat, you’ll dig this.
According to a review I read on I Tunes where I purchased the album, Ian Anderson started the creative process by coming up with a list of words that corresponded to strong human emotions. “I had 12 words for 12 songs” he says, “and it occurred to me that these words were featured heavily in my memory of reading the bible.” On the band website Ian notes that “while I have a spot of genuine fondness for the pomp and fairytale story telling of the Holy Book, I still feel the need to question and draw sometimes unholy parallels from the text. The good, the bad, and the downright ugly rear their heads throughout, but are punctuated with elements of love, respect and tenderness.”
Like Whitesnake with David Coverdale, Jethro Tull is Jethro Tull as long as Ian Anderson is at the mic. Here, the band also includes Florian Opahle on guitar, David Goodler on bass, John O’Hara on keys and Scott Hammond on drums, with Joe Parrish-James guesting on guitar for In Brief Visitation. The near constant presence of Anderson’s flute is a direct connection back to the earlier records mentioned above. As observed in a review on www.ultimateclassicrock.com, “you can almost smell the roasting meat and urine-lined streets from medieval times in the song titles.” With that flavor to their music, Ritchie Blackmore is probably listening to this too.
While The Zealot Gene produces the classic Tull sound in many ways they aren’t just living in the past if you’ll pardon the pun. You’ll find some synths here and beefy guitar work there. Though the overall sound has connections to medieval times, lyrically Zealot is informed by more recent political discourse. “The populist with dark appeal, the pandering to hate/ which xenophobic scaremongers deliver on a plate to tame the pangs of hunger and satisfy the lust/ slave to ideology, moderation bites the dust” Ian sings on the title track, and I’d bet the mortgage you know who he had in mind. The Zealot Gene isn’t ‘just another Tull record’, it’s the best thing they’ve done in decades. www.jethrotull.com
HOT TRACKS: Mrs. Tibbets, The Zealot Gene, Barren Beth Wild Desert John
TAROT CARDS & SHOOTING STARS The HawtThorns (Mule Kick Records) *****
If you like country rock, if Americana tickles your ears, have I got a treat for you. The HawtThorns are back with their 2nd album, a follow-up to 2019’s Morning Sun. Tarot Cards & Shooting Stars is a stunning bit of work, a combination of Johnny Hawthorn’s hooky guitar playing and KP’s lush vocal harmonies making this collection of country-rockers, acoustic ballads and southern soul songs a must-have.
This husband and wife duo each had solo careers before putting their band together in LA then re-locating to Nashville. Tarot Cards is another pandemic-fueled record, but one that finds them counting their blessings and discovering the silver linings in otherwise hard times. “There’s been so much darkness lately” KP observes. “I understand why artists feel compelled to write about that, but I wanted our record to feel like a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a happy ending story to a tough year.”
Johnny is a talented multi-instrumentalist and producer with a past that includes performing with Toad The Wet Sprocket and Everclear. He had 3 solo albums out before hooking up with KP, Guitar Player likening his phrasing to Hendrix and his vocal melodies to The Eagles. KP (formerly Kristen Proffit) had a solo career with her music being heard on TV shows like Friday Night Lights and Dawson’s Creek, plus she was in the band Calico who managed 2 albums before breaking up. Despite the success each enjoyed previously, after giving Tarot Cards a few spins this is clearly a case of the sum being greater than its parts as they bring out the best in each other musically.
It’s a combination of the songwriting and performances plus the rich vocal harmonies, that give this a sort of ‘ladies of the canyon’ feel with a Nashville twist. The songs feel like the sort of things Emmylou Harris or Linda Ronstadt would be at home with, a feeling reinforced by their cover of Nicolette Larson’s Lotta Love, a song I remember playing as a radio deejay in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Tarot Cards & Shooting Stars is lush, layered and hook laden, with soulful country-flavored tunes that blur the lines between genres and stay with you after the disc stops playing. When you give this a spin, you’ll hear what I’m talking about. TC&SS is out February 25th. www.thehawtthorns.com
HOT TRACKS: Let’s Get Together, All The Right Reasons, Lotta Love
HIGHS & LOWS Bernard Allison (Ruf) ****
We haven’t had a new studio album from Bernard Allison since 2018’s Let It Go, so this is quite welcome. Highs & Lows is a driving mix of blues, rock and funk- good mojo. “Just to be able to create music again after the pandemic” Bernard says, “was incredible.”
For the few that don’t know Bernard is the youngest son of late Chicago blues legend Luther Allison, who died of cancer in 1997. He’s been playing guitar since the age of 12, a week after graduating high school he hit the road with Koko Taylor’s Blues Machine, staying with them for most of the 80’s. He also played the dual role of writing for and leading his father’s band while establishing a solo career to boot. Luther was proud of what his son was able to do. “My dad always told me” Bernard says of his talent for splicing blues with funk, rock and R&B, “don’t let them label you like they labeled me, as Chicago blues.” He also jammed with Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, and Johnny Winter taught him how to play slide in open tuning.
If you’re looking for Luther-style hard blues, Highs & Lows will surprise you. This is filed with my other blues stuff, but that almost feels wrong. The funk and R&B elements are more prominent here, with relaxed grooves supplied by drummer Steve Potts (who played on Luther’s recordings too) and bassist George Moye. The set was produced by legendary producer and career-long collaborator Jim Gaines at Bessie Blue Studios in Tennessee. Guests include Colin James on guitar and vocals for My Way Or The Highway and his godfather Bobby Rush sings the very funky Hustler.
Highs & Lows (the song) says Allison, about the rollercoaster that life can be. “It’s a part of life, the ups and downs that everyone deals with” he says, but that describes the whole album too. From the opener So Excited about the excitement he feels about hitting the road with his band again to the song that closes the disc Last Night (about the changing moods of a man chasing his runaround woman, shifting tempo from an upbeat chop to a weeping slow blues) it’s all here. He could’ve just as easily called the album Life but without the lows, the highs wouldn’t be as enjoyable. www.bernardallison.com
HOT TRACKS: Last Night, My Way Or The Highway, Hustler
THE WORKHOUSE Karl Stoll & The Danger Zone (Dangerous Guitar Music) ***
This, the 2nd album from Karl Stoll & The Danger Zone, is said to be years in the making. Produced by Karl and keyboardist Tommy Lepson, The Workhouse is a set of blue collar blues/ rock/ pop songs- not particularly earth shaking, but quite enjoyable. 11 songs in all, including a cover of Great Rain by John Prine & Mike Campbell.
Stylistically The Workhouse uses a wide ranging palette, from the Crescent City funk of the opening track to blues, soul, rock & roll and Americana. Some of the songs are straight up party tunes, while the title track is a deep, dirty blues about the haunted, twisted story of the now-defunct District Of Columbia prison in Lorton, Virginia which makes sense, if only because Karl and the band are from the DC area. When I read that Great Rain was written by John Prine and Mike Campbell I expected something folky, but what I heard was a nasty, muscular guitar workout that Hendrix would’ve dug.
The band is Karl on vocals and guitar, John “Mojo” Dickson on harmonica, Brian Alpert on drums and Dean Dalton on bass, with a number of musical friends pitching in on the Workhouse sessions. Perhaps only Canadian readers will get the reference, and not many at that, but this album feels like a 1989 disc by Ray Lyle & The Storm with the hit Another Man’s Gun. The sound of The Workhouse is livelier, dirtier yet cleaner at the same time, but the spirit of both records feels similar- good Friday night beer drinkin’ music might be the best way to get at it.
Stoll is a decent singer but a better guitarist, as evidenced by his soloing on songs like Why Does It Feel So Good which also features John Dickson’s best harp work on the record. Lyrically there are interesting stories being told but some of the rhymes feel a little obvious. Maybe I’m just looking at this thing too closely when I should just sit back and enjoy. The Workhouse isn’t The Wall, but it isn’t Led Zep IV either. Now excuse me while I go to the fridge to grab a beer, then spin this puppy again. www.karlstoll.com
HOT TRACKS: Great Rain, Meet Me In New Orleans, Bad Girl
COSMICOMA Betty Moon (Evolver Music) *****
I never do this, but when researching Betty Moon for last week’s review of her new album Undercover, I saw that she’d released this in May of ’21. “Weird” I thought, “the publicist would’ve sent it to me.” Digging through my email backlog- get dozens every week- there it was. After giving it a spin I felt it worth bringing to your attention, almost a year later. Cosmicoma, her 10th album, while maintaining what makes a Betty Moon record alluring and unique, is the hardest rocking set she’s done yet.
The initial single from the album, My Only One, was a good indicator of what to expect. She called it “A mix of pop and dark melodies, with chugging guitars and a chorus which may resonate with many women- and men for that matter.” She adds “Infidelity is a great topic to reflect on and poke fun at, and I wanted the listener to be able to make it their own.”
Betty produced Cosmicoma at her southern California studio while enlisting longtime collaborators Justin Smolian and Owen Barry to bring her vision to life. From the Allman Brothers/ Zeppelinesque The Mexican to the hip-hop flavored Are You Ready For Me that follows it, Moon has the balls to follow her musical curiosity wherever it may lead her, making an 8 song record like this feel much bigger than it is. At the other end of the musical spectrum is Where My Heart Is; “I wanted to write something a bit more stripped down and rooted with an acoustic” Betty says. “I took things in a bit more of a rock direction on this album so this track tones things down a bit., while still telling true tales from my life experience.”
There’s still something of a psychedelic vibe here but Cosmicoma is the most rock & roll album of Betty’s that I’ve heard so far. With every new Betty Moon record you can never be sure of what to expect, exactly, and that’s just one of the many things I love about her as an artist. Cosmicoma kicks very serious ass. www.bettymoon.com
HOT TRACKS: Black Bloods, The Mexican, Where My Heart Is