SEVEN PSALMS Paul Simon (Owl Records) *****
January 15th 2019, Paul Simon had a dream so vivid he got out of bed and wrote it down. It told him to start working on Seven Psalms and throughout the couple of years that followed, that’s what he did. The result is a 33 minute 7 movement composition that is prayer and meditation, a contemplation of the meaning of life and death, and the existence of God.
Most of us are familiar with Paul’s work with Simon & Garfunkel as well as his decades of solo hits. Despite all that, there was little to indicate he had a record like this in him. His sense of humor remains intact (My Professional Opinion) and he deals with aging and loneliness as well as the existential questions that cross everybody’s mind. These trains of thought are supported by gentle fingerstyle acoustic guitar, the occasional harmonica, discriminating percussion and some eerie bells that lend the piece (it’s issued as one piece, not divided into individual tracks) an ethereal feel. His wife Edie Brickell also does some backup singing.
I dig Paul’s pop records and his exploration of other cultures (Graceland, The Rhythm Of The Saints), but Seven Psalms feels more like Bridge Over Troubled Waters and the subjects he addresses here dig deeper. After the dream mentioned above Simon began working on some guitar pieces, then 2-3 times a week between 3 & 5am he would dream words and write them down. But as soon as he thought “I can take this somewhere” and began applying his songwriting skill, the muse stopped. In an interview on Tom Powers’ Q TV show on CBC (see the link below) Paul said it was like the songs came through him and he was just taking dictation.
Nothing on Seven Psalms to dance to or crank up, this is for when you want to sit quietly (with a glass of wine perhaps) and contemplate the mysteries of existence. In not playing to the pop audience, Paul Simon has released one of the most artistically satisfying records of his career.
HOT TRACKS: The Lord, My Professional Opinion, Trail Of Volcanoes
TOUGHEN UP Leroy From The North (independent) ****
Imagine you’re on a summer road trip with the tunes blasting and your FM dial somewhere between country and classic rock. That’s the vibe of Toughen Up, the debut from Leroy From The North. It’s a captivating blend of west coast country rock and greasy southern rock- Eagles meet Crazy Horse and maybe Molly Hatchet. These boys were born to boogie!
Eli Wulfmeier, the band’s singer, guitarist and chief songwriter, was raised in Michigan and grew up on stuff like Free and Humble Pie. Moving to California in his 20’s he began collaborating with other artists as a co-writer as well as being a lead guitarist for hire with artists like Shelby Lynne and Sam Morrow. By the time Eli and the band hit the studio with producer Eric Corne for Toughen Up, their chops were honed by plenty of roadwork and it shows.
There’s a rough-hewn analog-style charm to this disc, partly due to how the guys are playing and Wulfmeier’s captivating storytelling… I’m tempted to invent a new genre for it- log cabin rock & roll. Toughen Up is full of characters that we either have known or have been ourselves; clueless radio executives, pawnshop customers, flophouses and blue collar working stiffs at the end of their rope. When he inhabits these people for the purpose of telling their stories he’s on the same level as a Springsteen or Mellencamp; close your eyes as you listen and you can literally see them… it’s kind of trippy.
There’s a timelessness to Toughen Up, like it could have come from almost any era of the last 50 years though it’s mainly rooted in the 70’s, which works gangbusters. Leroy From The North is an odd name for band, but good luck shaking off any of these songs once you hear them.
HOT TRACKS: Youngblood, Pawn Shop, Push
ICE CREAM MAN 2 8 Ball Aitken (independent) *****
If like your slide guitar nasty and greasy, this record is for you; 8 Ball Aitken’s latest, Ice Cream Man 2, the follow-up to 2021’s first volume. When the guitar playing is particularly is good it gives me goosebumps; Ice Cream Man 2 gives me enough of said bumpage to be able to sand furniture. This is outstanding blues.
8 Ball is an Australian artist who has also called Nashville home, but the blues he plays feels like it comes from the deep south. Ice Cream Man 2 was produced by 8 Ball at studios in Nashville and Australia, and the album includes Tom Hambridge on drums… Buddy Leach on sax, keys and bg vocals… Dillon James Aitken on Hammond & keys… Taya Chani, Jessie Lynch and Norman Baquiran on backing vocals, plus Nick Downing on percussion. Together they manage to play with swing and grit, not an easy thing to do. 8 Ball’s smoky voice is made for the blues, sounding not unlike Harry Manx, another of my favorite blues artists.
In a world where singles appear to be becoming the order of the day again there’s something glorious about putting on a full album and getting lost in the music. The production sound on Ice Cream Man 2 is meaty and the louder you play it the better it sounds. 8 Ball Aitken’s guitar solos are expressive and full of emotion, and when the band is swinging mightily behind him, it’s a thing of greasy beauty. So many great blues and blues-based rock artists come from Australia, there must be something in the water- or the beer.
8 Ball Aitken and his band can and do groove till the cows come home. Ice Cream Man 2 is one of those albums that is real easy to dive into, and that’s the best kind of escapism there is. It was no surprise at all to learn that this disc has hit #1 one the Australian Blues & Roots charts, and if there’s anything close to justice in the music world this album will enjoy similar success everywhere else too. As I listen to Ice Cream Man 2, there isn’t a single track that I wouldn’t play on my internet radio shows- I want as many people as possible to hear this.
HOT TRACKS: Wading Through Muddy Water, Good Love Goes Bad, Way Too Long
NEW SOUTHERN Justin Cody Fox (independent) *****
This is the second album for North Carolina blues rock powerhouse Justin Cody Fox. New Southern veers all over the highway in a glorious way. Maybe blue collar rock & roll is the most appropriate label here, but the album is so much more than that.
That New Southern is semi-autobiographical is a bonus; the stories Justin sings about are relatable from every angle. “I wrote all the songs from real life experiences and really tried to take a looking glass approach to my life and the lives around me” he says. “We can only see through our own eyes but that doesn’t mean we can’t relate those stories to the human condition and curate them onto a sonic canvas.” That kind of truth-telling lends some extra depth to the songs, I think, when people can see themselves in the lyrics too.
New Southern is most assuredly rock & roll but you’ll notice a certain amount of twang every now and again. The leadoff track Living Ghosts felt like a lost Tom Petty track, and Show Me Your Light is like a ham-fisted AC/DC style rocker, the kind of thing you like to crank on a Friday night as you head into a long weekend. The production is bang on with a certain amount of scruff but nothing blatantly retro or lo-fi. Justin’s band plays with plenty of muscle and authority, avoiding the urge to fancy things up just to show off. And when you get to the last 3 songs on the disc, the ballads Always and the Black Crowe-ish Have You Seen Angel will rip your heart out of your chest, Old Man Rest especially so. That’s what great ballads should do.
The musicianship on New Southern is top shelf and the songwriting revelatory with Fox’s vocals and guitar playing reaching a new level of maturity. “Recording New Southern was so important to me” Justin declares, “I truly enjoyed every moment of the process as I try to do the same in everyday life.” That spirit of joy and gratitude permeates the whole record, and you can feel it in yourself as you listen. Nicely done, Mr. Fox.
HOT TRACKS: Living Ghosts, Show Me Your Light. Old Man Rest
NOTHING BUT TIME Monster Mike Welch (Gulf Coast) *****+
If you’re in the mood for he-man blues guitar playing, Boston-based Monster Mike Welch is your guy and Nothing But Time is the album you need to hear. Mike plays with controlled abandon- this is the kind of stuff that will put goosebumps on your goosebumps. I haven’t felt like this about a blues album since Buddy Guy’s Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues comeback record in 1991.
Monster Mike is a new signing for Gulf Coast and they’re lucky to have him as any label would be. “I have been a fan for 25-plus years” says label chief Mike Zito. “He’s one of the absolute finest blues artists/ guitarists of our time and I am thrilled to be working with him… I’m hopeful for some free guitar lessons!” Welch brings almost 3 decades of touring and recording with him, carving out a niche as an accomplished and in-demand guitarist. Given the nickname “Monster Mike” by Dan Ackroyd (Elwood Blues) when he was just 13, Mike has lived up to that tag with room to spare. He’s not just good, he’s exciting.
MMW is lucky to still be making music, having battled Covid for over a year and a half. “At its worst, Long Covid was completely debilitating and I spent most of 2022 genuinely unsure of whether I’d be able to play music full time ever again” he says. Kid Andersen and Mike Zito (of Gulf Coast) inspired me to take a leap of faith and make a new start; they both had my back and gave me the support and freedom to make the most personal record of my career.” Nothing But Time was produced and engineered by Kid Andersen (who also plays on the record) at his Greaseland Studios in San Jose just this past March and the sound is HOT.. An all-star band is backing Mike on the disc including Grammy winning bassist Jerry Jemmott who has played with artists like Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett and Gregg Allman.
Nothing But Time is a great selection of tunes including covers of Robert Johnson’s If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day and Kind Hearted Woman Blues plus George Harrison’s I Me Mine and Buddy Guy’s Ten Years Ago This disc is the blues with boatloads of soul and groove, not to mention inspiring musicianship from all involved. GREAT stuff..
HOT TRACKS: Walking To You Baby, I’ve Got Nothing But Time, Offswitch Blues
GHOST HYMNS William Lee Ellis (Yellow Dog Records) *****++
The cover for this disc led me to expect a brace of simple acoustic back porch-style blues, but sweet Jesus Ghost Hymns is so very much more than that. It is an intoxicating blend of acoustic blues, bluegrass, folk and world music that reaches into your very soul.
“It’s been a few years since (my last record)” Ellis says. “During that time I stepped into the world of academia and earned a PHD in ethnomusicology at the University of Memphis.” He has since moved to Vermont, where he is an Associate professor of Music and Chair of the Fine Arts Department at St. Michael’s College. His fine fingerstyle guitar playing is central to Ghost Hymns but the album is also well informed by his intellectual pursuits in the field of music. He speaks of the “global virtuosi” musicians in Vermont and beyond that he has comes to know as friends and shares credit for this exquisite record with them. “This album reflects those friendships, heard as musical conversations with a traveled reach and reverence for the voices of the past” William notes. “This is the heart of traditional music and of the music I write, with one ear bent to the pre-WWII blues and gospel pioneers, the buskers and street players, whose riffs and rhymes bore witness to an often cruel and indifferent world and whose music personally remains a musical if not moral guide.”
I found those things out while listening to the album and reading the supplied press info and it certainly rings true. So now it’s not just the music and the performances that have captivated me, but I love the way he looks at and feels about music. His dad Tony Ellis is a veteran of Bill Monroe’s early 60’s Blue Grass Boys, so the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. “I may not share his bluegrass tenure, but I’d like to think I carry forward my father’s gifts for tone and melodic craft and the ability to personalize tradition” William says.
If acoustic blues, bluegrass and exquisite musicianship float your boat, Ghost Hymns will speak to you loud and clear- I know it did to me. This is a musical meditation I intend to re-visit often.
HOT TRACKS: Flood Tale, Call On Me, Bury Me In The Sky/ I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore
PSYCHO CIRCUS Kiss (Mercury) RELEASED: September 22nd, 1998
After the success of their MTV Unplugged, throwing the makeup back on and trotting around the world on a record shattering tour, Kiss hit the studio to record the first studio album with the original lineup since the 70’s. Psycho Circus was the most eagerly awaited record in decades for the band but, as with all things Kiss, nothing was what it appeared to be. Even so, knowing what we know now, it’s still a hell of a record.
Touted as a ‘band effort’, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss barely participated. Criss only played drums on Into The Void, and Frehley only contributed to that track and You Wanted The Best. According to an article in Wikipedia Simmons and Stanley claimed various and conflicting reasons; not showing up, wanting new financial deals, not being capable of playing, and producer Bruce Fairbairn (Bon Jovi, Aerosmith) electing not to use them. In his book Makeup To Breakup Peter Criss claims that Paul Stanley was so determined not to work with the pair in the studio that they were each paid $850,000 NOT to come in. From the time the reunion was announced I had a feeling something was off.
Despite all the behind the scenes treachery and shenanigans Psycho Circus ended up being a pretty good record. The songs are solid with Dreamin’ being the only filler to my ears, and thanks to producer Bruce Fairbairn this is also the best sounding disc in the entire Kiss catalogue, over Destroyer and Revenge. Party anthems like I Pledge Allegiance To The State of Rock & Roll and Raise Your Glasses are good cheese and the Gene Simmons-penned like Within, We Are One and Journey of 1,000 Years prove that he’s capable of singing about something besides his dick.
The reunion of the original lineup and the recording of Psycho Circus was an attempt by the Kiss marketing machine to prop up the band’s lagging fortunes as the “non-makeup” era ran out of steam. I would have a preferred a more honest effort by Kiss to reignite the magic that once made them the hottest band in the world. I think Ace and Peter would have too, but Gene & Paul had other ideas. In a review at the time, Rolling Stone said of Psycho Circus that it’s “an album of platform-stomping rhythms, roller coaster guitar riffs and sing-along choruses- is far more respectable than any of the awkward flops from the no-makeup years” and they have a point. This barely qualifies as a Kiss record but still, it’s pretty damn good.
HOT TRACKS: You Wanted The Best, I Pledge Allegiance To The State Of Rock & Roll, We Are One