Hot Wax Album Reviews by the ROCK DOCTOR – July 11th 2023

FOUR David Deacon (Slammin Media) *****

After some time away from the music biz, this Canadian blues ‘n’ roots singer is back with his (surprise, surprise) fourth album. He brings a lifetime of creative exploration- painting, drawing, poetry, racing cars- to this, a compelling group of stories set to music.

Four is bluesy but not strictly a blues record- more like Dire Straits meets Leonard Cohen and/ or Tom Waits.  David’s voice has a casually rugged quality to it and an intriguing way with words; old-school rock/ballad storytelling.  The disc was co-produced by Grammy-nominated jazz pianist/ producer Eddie Bullen with a spacious and relaxed feel befitting an artist of Deacon’s vintage.

To get a handle on the gifts that Four offers it helps to know where David Deacon comes from.  The dude is a risk taker- he left university after determining his interest in art was greater than his interest in a degree, so he moved to Paris.  His work got better but his self-expectations grew too, surrounded by all that historical genius.  After returning home he struggled to make a living as an artist, which led to a chain of different jobs and businesses over the years.  In the 80’s he raced motorcycles and cars; Sebring, Daytona and Le Mans.  During the 90’s he recorded and released 3 albums and held a 7 year residency at The Rex in Toronto with regular gigs in that city as well as Buffalo, Rochester, Ottawa, Peterborough and Kingston.  That is the restless spirit behind the batch of 10 emotional songs we are considering here today.

The first single Arc Of Life (released March 24th) was written as a non-secular song that could be played at memorials for people. “I wanted a song that spoke about them and not some mystical abstract” David says. “I (also) wanted to make clear my view that I believe that what we do is what we are- not what we hoped or believed or just talked about.”  The emotional centerpiece of the album- to me at least- is California Has No Winter, about how culture is dismissive of age. “It’s scintillating to be young but one shouldn’t miss that fact that some things require age to become beautiful” he observes.

The more I listen to Four the more it feels like a Leonard Cohen record, and that’s a good thing.  I will be enjoying and learning things from these songs for a good long while.

HOT TRACKS: California has No Winter, Arc Of Life, Simplify

THE EMPRESS Sara Petite (Forty Below) **** ½   

So much country music on the radio today is formulated to appeal to the lowest common denominator that when someone like Sara Petite comes along it’s a blast of fresh air.  The Empress is rebel country, packed with enough sass and attitude to put a crease in your Levi’s.

I guess being a country queen doesn’t interest Sara, she wants to be The Empress.  It’s an emotionally raw record that goes to so many places country just doesn’t anymore as she summons up the spirits of Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson.  These songs take place in dive bars, trailer parks, the throes of passion, and the feedback loop of addiction. The Mistress is an old school country/ soul ballad about a lover’s affair with booze, and Bringin’ Down The Neighborhood is the story of a hell-raising hillbilly heroine.  As a singer I wouldn’t compare her to but would put her in the same neighborhood as Loretta; Mojo Nixon on Sirius XM’s Outlaw Country nailed it when he said “she can sing a buzzard off a slop wagon.”

There’s something endearingly old-school about The Empress, an emotional honesty and ‘so what’ attitude that the country old bastards like me grew up on love.  I’m a rock guy and don’t spend much time with country music, so to get my attention it has to slap my hard across the face; and this album does just that.  It’s a batch of tunes about the universal struggles we all face, and Sara delivers them with an I-don’t-care-what-people-think-of-me attitude that makes the album fun to listen to.  It also makes you wonder what it would be like to sit down with her over a coffee or a beer and just talk about stuff… the sort of mind you’d really like to get to know.

My big beef against modern country in general is the lack of emotional purity- The Empress is the polar opposite of that.  Witty, straightforward, with a sense of soul that the genre used to have and a twang you could hang a saddle on, this is the good stuff- the real good stuff.

HOT TRACKS:  God Save The Queen, Bringin’ Down The Neighborhood, She’s Come Undone

BEST OF ME Joanna Connor (Gulf Coast) ****+

This is the Gulf Coast label debut for legendary Chicago guitarist Joanna Connor. Best Of Me is blues with some country soul, powered by Connor’s energetic Allman-esque slide guitar giving life to 11 excellent tunes, including a cover of Mercury Blues. With her touring band behind her along with a number of special guests, Joanna Connor can do no wrong.

Best Of Me is one of those records that feels effortlessly natural.  “There are musicians who play together and do it extremely well” Joanna says, “then there are musicians that move as one, that share moments of creating music that is mystically telepathic.  The musicians we assembled here created a free-flowing and fiery blend of soul, rock, funk and country, all rooted in the blues.”  There’s a sense of adventure and a willingness to peer over the edge that makes this a fine album, a spirit that’s catching and invigorating… it puts a bounce in your step.

One you absorb the brilliant musicianship and drill down into the lyrics the gifts just keep on coming. “The album touches on my maturing as a woman, facing mortality with grace and thanks” she says, “celebrating love won, love lost, lust and passion, the pain and pleasure of having this human experience. I hope the listener enjoys this record as much as we did making it.”  The blues is just one ingredient in this potent mix, working side by side with funk and soul as well.  I like that Best Of Me doesn’t feel the need to be just one thing or follow a narrow path.  The songs on this disc are an expression of the depth of the many life experiences we’ve all been through and that contact, that ‘not feeling alone’ is priceless.

As a singer Joanna sounds a little like Rita Coolidge but maybe not as slick… as a guitar player, perhaps a cross between Duane Allman and David Wilcox; sounds pretty wild but never really out of control, like a tightrope artist.  Although Best Of Me is a ‘Joanna Connor’ album, it’s also the sound of a bunch of ridiculously talented players having a great time.

HOT TRACKS:  Pain & Pleasure, Highway Child (with Joe Bonamassa), Shadow Lover (with Mike Zito)

NOSY NEIGHBORS Paul Boddy & The Slidewinder Blues Band (Slide Records) **** ½

When Texas style blues mixes with Chicago blues, it sounds like this.  Nosy Neighbors is, by and large, party blues with plenty of swing motivated and locomoted by Boddy’s superb slide work. 10 songs here including 2 cover songs by way of Elmore James (It Hurts Me Too ) and Leon Russell (Delta Lady).  The band is kickin’ hard and the album is just flat-out excellent.

Hailing from Doylestown PA just north of Philly, that’s not the first place (or even state) that comes to mind when you think of the blues but sweet Jesus these guys have it flowing in their veins.  Nosy Neighbors is blues that rocks out like David Gogo’s best stuff- in fact as a singer Paul reminds me of David.  The band also includes Glenn Hale on keys, Chuck Hearne on bass and drums courtesy of Dave Hollingsworth.  The playing on this disc is top shelf and the production is too.  Not sure who produced this- Boddy perhaps?- but it’s easily as solid and expressive as what Tom Hambridge has been doing for others at the mixing board.

Nosy Neighbors was recorded through the pandemic which must mean most of the work was done remotely, but the disc has the feel of all 4 guys playing together a room with the goal of burning down the house.  The lively horn charts really snazz up the arrangements and the backing vocals coming in on the chorus of songs like Jam It In make it sound like a giant party that you wish you’d been invited to.  It’s not too late though; buy the album and you’re there.

The Slidewinders have been around for 7 years according to their website, Nosy Neighbors is their 2nd album, but it feels like the work of guys that have been playing together for far longer than that.  This is rockin’ funkin’ blues with plenty of muscle that not only stands up to repeated listens but practically demands it… I’m quite happy to oblige.

HOT TRACKS:  Nosy Neighbors, It Hurts Me Too, Milk & Cookies

MINDSETS Joan Jett & The Blackhearts (Blackheart Records/ Sony)  ***

A 6 song EP here from one of my favorite rock chicks. Mindsets is a set of tight numbers with more punk energy than The Blackhearts usually display.  I had no idea this was even in the works until ads for it started showing up on my Facebook feed.  The songs are simple and propulsive- just what we want from Joan.

I’ve been a Jett fan since hearing the first Runaways album in 1976.  As the rhythm guitarist and co-lead vocalist Jett was a big part of that band’s appeal and after the group split she went on to have, arguably, the most successful solo career starting with 1980’s Bad Reputation which she had to finance herself. Over the years her music has flirted with mainstream success- I Love Rock & Roll, I Hate Myself For Loving You anyone?- but Mindsets finds her and the band returning to short punk tunes based around simple chord structures and energetic playing; a Blackhearts trademark.

An exception is Whisky Goes Good, which has an easier pace and a country feel… quite unexpected and an effective change of pace. The longest song on the disc clocks in at 3:30 so JJ & The BH don’t overstay their welcome; they hit hard and fast and the EP feels like it’s just begun when it’s already over.  I think it was Joe Bonamassa who observed recently that the music biz started out with singles, went into full length albums, but now it’s  headed back to singles.  As an EP Mindsets falls in the middle- more than a single but less than an El Pee.  The performances are furious and while the tunes don’t have punk sloppiness they do have attitude.  This isn’t the best thing I’ve ever heard from Jett but it IS entertaining, and today that’s enough.

HOT TRACKS:  If You’re Blue, (Make The Music Go) Boom

ORPHEUS DESCENDING John Mellencamp (Republic) *****+

There are two artists that come to mind when it comes to singing about everyday life; Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp.  Orpheus Descending is a dark, sparse, beautiful record, often bittersweet but truthful as this 71 year old man looks back on his life with honesty and the occasional hint of regret.  I know how that feels, so this really hits home for me.

If you’re looking for little ditties ‘bout Jack & Diane, this ain’t it- Mellencamp isn’t that guy anymore.  His weathered voice- lowered, deepened and thickened by decades of smoking- has an elegant weariness perfect for addressing the things he’s choosing to write about.  There’s the social commentary of songs like Land Of The So Called Free and The Eyes Of Portland, but the way he approaches the spent passion of a relationship in The Kindness of Lovers is enough to make you weep- and I’m not a cryer. Orpheus Descending, produced by John at his Belmont Mall Studio in Indiana, is mainly acoustic guitars with some slide and dobro that give the songs a haunted, lived in quality.  He approaches his subjects with expressive honesty that can almost seem shocking, but it’s coming from a very real place and an artist no longer interested in playing the numbers game.  He sings these songs because he wants to… hell, needs to.

I became a Mellencamp fan with 1983’s Uh-Huh and haven’t missed a record since.  Still, when he started delving into more serious stuff circa Big Daddy in 1989 I missed the big pop hooks of songs like Check It Out and Authority Song, but I thought enough of what had come before to dig in and see where his muse was leading him… and I’m sure glad I did.  You may not see John Mellencamp records topping the charts like they did in the 80’s, but Orpheus Descending is exhibit “A” in the case for his albums being even more worth listening to nowadays.  The use of fiddle throughout Orpheus give the disc a rustic flavor and a faint connection to The Lonesome Jubilee, and as a 65 year old man I can feel these songs in my bones.  It’s been a good year for music, and Orpheus Descending is one of the best records you’ll hear.

HOT TRACKS:  The Kindness of Lovers, Lightning And Luck, The Eyes Of Portland


STONEBOLT Stonebolt (Parachute) RELEASED: 1978

The self-titled 1978 debut from this Vancouver band has long been a favorite of mine.  It has an easy pop rock sound that was in favor back then, though it hasn’t perhaps aged as well as other records from the era.  But when a song has the power to instantly transport you back to an important time in your life- Was It You off of Stonebolt does that for me- the rest of the songs demand closer inspection.  As it turns out, this is a pretty solid record.

The band first formed in 1969 under the name Perth Amboy according to Wikipedia, changing their name to Stonebolt in ’73 after adding a singer and keyboard player.  The debut record has a broad range of styles at play; pop, rock, soft rock, even country rock, not unlike your average Eagles disc.  The ballad I Will Still Love You was the big hit, making it to #29 in the States and #19 in Canada, but not the best song on the record- that was already mentioned in the first paragraph.  While Stonebolt enjoyed moderate success and seemed to indicate a bright future for the group, Parachute went tits up and they were picked up by RCA for 3 more records; Keep It Alive (1979), New Set Of Changes (1980) and Juvenile American Princess (1982) before the law of diminishing returns brought their recording career to a close.

The band in 1978 was David Wills on vocals, Ray Roper on guitar and vocals, John Webster on keys, Dan Atchison on bass and Brian Lousely on drums. The playing is tight and spirited, with Wills and Roper’s vocals being an agreeable blend a la Henley and Frey and the songs fairly light romantic fare.  Maybe it’s that Stonebolt’s vibe was typical of the scene and they got lost in the shuffle but this record and the ones that followed deserve more attention than they got.  There is a ‘best of’ album, Regeneration: The Best Of Stonebolt issued by Vortex in 1999, but the original masters could not be found (destroyed in a big fire in Los Angeles I heard) so the songs had to be re-recorded.  They’re good, but I miss the vibe of the original versions.  I have that cd, but when I’m in the mood for some Stonebolt- this or any of the other 3- I reach for the vinyl every time.  Stonebolt in particular is worth hunting down at your favorite used record shop.

HOT TRACKS:  Was It You, The Shadow, I Will Still Love You


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