STRICTLY A ONE-EYED JACK John Mellencamp (Republic) *****
This is Mellencamp’s 25th album. Once a teller of tales about small town life in the Midwest, John hears the clock ticking and doesn’t have the stomach for trivial or superficial things. Strictly A One-Eyed Jack is obsessed with mortality and the passage of time. The sound is a rough yet serious version of the rustic vibe that his career is built on, and Mellencamp’s 70 year old smoker’s voice is a rasp in the neighbourhood of Dylan and Waits… and I can’t stop listening to this album.
John once sang “Oo yeah life goes on/ long after the thrill of living is gone”, and he’s travelled much further down that road on One-Eyed Jack. It’s a dark record that explores themes like loneliness and death. “What I’ve discovered at my ancient age is that we are all in solitary confinement inside our own skins, and we don’t really get to know anybody” he said in a recent NPR interview. As for this being dark work, he disagrees. “I don’t see it as dark at all” John notes in the same interview, “I just see it as looking for the truth of life”. I’m not quite his age at nearly 64, but have been thinking along the same lines for quite some time now, so I see where he’s coming from.
In the 80’s & 90’s Mellencamp’s songs were all over the radio; Hurts So Good, Jack & Diane, Authority Song, you couldn’t get away from his pop ditties. In the 90’s albums like Human Wheels turned to more serious considerations and over the years since his study and focus on the individual human condition has only become sharper as well as his observations about the world of lies we live in. “They lied to us in the churches” he says. “They lied to us in the schools. The government’s always lying to us.”
As a fan of Mellencamp’s work (I have 21 of his 25 studio records) it feels like One-Eyed Jack is a cross between The Lonesome Jubilee and No Better Than This. I much prefer his latter day material to early records like American Fool, he’s examining life in a way that maybe more people need to. You could dance to songs like Lie To Me but that’s entirely beside the point. His buddy Bruce Springsteen contributes to 3 songs here too, but that isn’t stunt casting; Bruce is a friend and cuts like Wasted Days are compelling.
Strictly A One-Eyed Jack won’t sell a kajillion copies, though Wasted Days sounds like a hit to me. This is one of those albums that those who decide to dive in and take a look around will embrace it wholeheartedly as a character study of human nature. www.mellencamp.com
HOT TRACKS: Lie To Me, Wasted Days (with Bruce), A Life Full Of Rain, Gone Too Soon
JOE’S MEAT & GROCERY Massy Ferguson (independent) *** ½
When you think of music from Seattle, visions of Hendrix, Nirvana and flannel as far as the eye can see dance in your head, but this is different. On Joe’s Meat & Grocery, Massy Ferguson’s 6th album, they mix bar band twang with raw, guitar driven rock (what else do you expect from a band named after farm equipment) that might pass for Americana in dark corners and it’s a trip.
Songwriters in the band are bassist/ front man Ethan Anderson and guitarist Adam Monda. The album is named after the family store Monda’s grandpa ran in the early 1900’s in Wenatchee, which is fitting for a batch of songs of small town adolescence, big city adulthood, and the endless miles that must be traveled in between. Past records have been talked about as “Springsteen-worthy portrayals of blue collar life in America’s North Western pocket”, and that seems to be a pretty good way to roll. You wouldn’t think the two extremes of country and rock & roll would be a good mix, but Massy Ferguson proves that they do. They’ve shared stages with a number of country and alt rock acts, and it shows in these tunes.
Joe’s Meat & Grocery was recorded with Ken Stringfellow, noted for his work with R.E.M., Big Star and The Posies. The instrumental mix seems a little muffled and distant, surely that can’t only be the fault of my shockingly cheap stereo. Maybe Ken has a lo-fi approach? I prefer the guitars, bass, drums and keys to sound sharper and more detailed than this. The vocal harmonies have a country sparkle as they sing songs that shine a light on “dark memories, small details, pivotal moments and the wisdoms gained by years of doing foolish things”, and as someone that grew up in a small town (Castlegar BC, 7,000 people) I relate directly to what they’re saying.
If you find yourself intrigued by the ‘workin’ man’ vibe of artists like Springsteen and Mellencamp, Joe’s Meat & Grocery should be next on your playlist. www.massyfergusonband.com
HOT TRACKS: Miles Away, Leave If You Want To, The Hard Six
SEMINOLE Edge Of Forever (Frontiers) *****
Edge Of Forever is back with their 5th album, the follow up (in more ways than one) to 2020’s Native Soul. Think 90’s Queensryche meets Journey or Kansas and that’s the sound Seminole conjures up, the band again inspired by the depth of Native American culture- not what you’d expect from an Italian progressive rock band.
Edge Of Forever’s creative driving force is vocalist/ keyboardist Alessandro Del Vecchio, whom I’ve mentioned before in conjunction with some of his other projects. Edge would’ve hit the road with bands like Harem Scarem to tour their last record but, like everyone else, they had to stay home. The band used the time off to write an outstanding batch of songs. The piece de resistance, the 4 part Seminole suite that ends the album, includes writing contributions from drummer Marco Di Salvia for the first time. “I didn’t want to just write another album, another batch of songs” Del Vecchio says. “Edge of Forever is my island where I want to tell stories that can inspire people to reach their goals, live for their dreams, win over the odds that life throws at us.”
Seminole is a big achievement in every way, produced, mixed and mastered by Del Vecchio, who has clearly tapped into something special here with these inspiring stories delivered with superior musicianship. According to him, Seminole “is a conceptual album about my life, everybody’s life, (told) through the lense of a Seminole warrior and how from a defeat you can still come out stronger and more resilient.” Along with Del Vecchio and bassist Nik Mazzucconi Edge Of Forever includes new members Aldo Lonobile (guitars) and drummer Di Salvia, but they play together like they’ve been doing this for a decade or more- it’s quite thrilling.
Seminole is proof positive that hard rock can have depth and meaning as well as muscle. In this day of the short attention span it takes balls the size of a Buick to put out a concept album and expect people to actually listen. With Seminole, Edge Forever has given us something worth hearing- great stuff. http://www.frontiers.it/album/5743
HOT TRACKS: On The Other Side Of Pain, Breath Of Life, Seminole pts. 1 thru 4
Volume 1 Reverend Nathon (Independent) ****
All the way from Texas, this is Reverend Nathon Dees’ debut album. Volume 1 blurs the line between blues and rock & roll, something the Rev calls “Texas outlaw blues”. This is scrappy, muscular blues played with southern rock attitude that works like a hot damn.
I love the description of their sound in the press I received with the disc; “imagine a musical street fight between Larry Wallis-era Motorhead and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, in the back alley behind Stubb’s BBQ”. I mention that here because it’s an accurate description of how Volume 1 feels. There’s a sort of ramshackle feel to the songs that you only find in the best, most addictive kinds of rock & roll, and it smacks you in the face right from the opening number Darker Shade Of Blues.
Reverend Nathon’s reckless blend of blues and rawk (gotta spell it that way) recalls a couple of favourite obscure-ish bands, Too Slim & The Taildraggers and Terrell with that biker rock swagger. Of course, the Rev has been around for decades as a road warrior. “I love album rock” Nathon says. “I’ve always been a fan of the idea that when you listen to a record it should take you on a journey, so for this record I wanted it to be a reflection of me. We went in and recorded new versions of what I think are some of my best songs, along with a few new ones.”
What gives Reverend Nathon such impact is attitude. It wouldn’t be hard to name technically better singers or guitar players, but goddamn it Nathon Dees really makes you feel every note played and sung, and that’s the biggest difference of all. This is like Lynyrd Skynyrd meets Hound Dog Taylor. “We’re a southern rock band with a blues base” he notes, “but we always try to stay true to our Texas roots.” Nathon and his band mates, bassist Aaron Dees and drummer Gary Delz, are pure roadhouse magic.
Reverend Nathon’s Volume 1 is cheeky, rowdy and just a big pile of fun. Nathon Dees actually is a reverend; he might be licensed to marry you and bury you, but this album is rock solid proof that good music is the real religion. www.reverendnathon.com
HOT TRACKS: Darker Shade of Blue, Autumn Breeze, Millennial Blues
TURQUOISE BLUE Micki Free (Dark Idol Music) *****++
This is the first great guitar record of 2022. Turquoise Blue is the latest solo album from Micki, a feast of hard and soulful playing full of songs and immense groove along the lines of Stevie Ray and even Hendrix. I mean it, this thing is EPIC- I haven’t an album smack me upside the head like this since Santana’s Supernatural in 1999.
Micki Free is a blues/rock guitar slinger and a fine singer with a long history that includes opening for bands like Kiss and being nominated for 3 Grammys during a 9 year stint with Shalamar. After his sister took him to see Jimi Hendrix live while the family was stationed in Germany, Free knew what he wanted to do. The soul/funk sound of Shalamar didn’t allow him to be who he wanted to be. “I loved being a part of that band’s success” he says, “but I felt I couldn’t really be myself. I was a blues-rock guitar player and songwriter who just wanted to let it fly and play from my soul.”
It’s no wonder that Turquoise Blue hit me with such force as Micki’s comes from a place that I understand well. “I get my mojo from the classic greats, the masters of blues-rock and even classic rock” he says. “Everything I play comes from my own heart, (and) I’m really getting to the core of what I do in a way I hope people will connect with.” Oh it does Micki, it surely does. As Micki so astutely observes, “making music is about a connection so strong that it transcends language.”
The album title Turquoise Blue is a nod to both his guitar playing style and his Cherokee/ Comanche/ Irish heritage. They say you can judge a person by the company they keep, and the guest list on this album is an impressive one that includes Steve Sevens, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram and Gary Clark Jr., who all throw down with Micki and the results are breathtaking. Recorded and mixed by Ken Riley at Rio Grande Studios in Albuquerque New Mexico, Turquoise Blue has the kind of meaty heft you want a guitar-centric blues/rock record to have. Micki’s style has a Hendrix-y feel, like he’s about to blast off into space. Jimi himself would’ve appreciated the way All Along The Watchtower has been handled here, the lone cover on the album.
If you dig rock & roll guitar and have a love for the blues, you absolutely MUST hear Turquoise Blue. I know it’s too early to say, but my feeling is this is THE guitar record to which all others must bow in 2022. www.mickifree.com
HOT TRACKS: Bye 2020 (with Steve Stevens), Judicator Blues (with Christone “Kingfish” Ingram), Heaven Or Heroin, All Along The Watchtower
DOUBLE DOWN ON A BAD THING The Twangtown Paramours (Inside Edge Records) *** ½
This is the 3rd time out for this Nashville based duo, following two acoustic folk efforts. Double Down On A Bad Thing is country music on a blues chassis- or is it the other way around? No matter how you look at or listen to this disc, it’s a good time.
Double Down is more upbeat than their first two records, with Marybeth Zamer on vocals and Mike T. Lewis on guitar and bass, inviting Shawn Pelton (SNL house band, Rosanne Cash, Shawn Colvin) on drums, plus a number of special guests. This is in contrast to their earlier stuff; electric, rhythmic and band-centric. Some tasty ballads here like the mid-tempo I Miss Who I Thought You Were, but overall this is up-tempo and upbeat.
In talking about Double Down Mike says “influences of The Beatles and Memphis blues are prominent, but those sounds are re-interpreted and combined to form something new. This is the kind of record we’ve wanted to make for a long time.” While those first two acoustic records made it to #11 and #2 on the folk charts and received good reviews, my gut says THIS is the album that can get The Twangtown Paramours noticed by the world at large. The songs are thoughtful, well written and the production is faultless. “Talk About Peace is a song with a clear message” Mike notes. “We live in a society that is set against itself. We all know how to fix it, but we haven’t so far. Every major religion tells us what to do; think of others before you act, love thy neighbour as thyself, and forgive. (It’s) a plea for action instead of lip service.” On the other end is the saucy holiday treat Gingerbread Man, released as a single in November.
Double Down On A Bad Thing is fine sounding Nashville blues that’ll put a bounce in your step, and Marybeth agrees. “It’s our hope that while listening to this record, people will smile and dance around their living rooms like nobody’s watching” she says. “We may be living in difficult and divisive times, but if a good groove and musical energy can help change people’s mindsets to one of positivity and hope, this is the album to do it.” Here’s to hearing The Twangtown Paramours on radio everywhere. www.twangtownparamours.com
HOT TRACKS: Talk About Peace, Double Down On A Bad Thing, Gingerbread Man