Hot Wax Album Reviews by the ROCK DOCTOR – May 22, 2023

TRIBUTE Joe Krown (Sledgehammer Records) *****

Sometimes the most fun you have as a reviewer is going into an album with no idea of what to expect.  Other than seeing that Joe Krown plays piano- the cover is a bit of a giveaway- which lends itself to some Louisiana vibes, I was a babe in the woods.  It turns out that Tribute is a whole lot of fun. As Blues Review puts it, “Krown swings hard on the blues while seamlessly blending the church and the street.”  Sounds good, doesn’t it? You bet it does.

I confess to being lax in exploring piano driven blues, and this album has me thinking that should change pronto.  Krown says that his new album “is a tribute to the music and the people that have influenced me and the people in life that I’ve had to say goodbye to.”  Tribute is dedicated to the memory of Evalyn & Melvin Krown, Beth Krown Mahler, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Walter Wolfman Washington, Allen Toussaint, Randi de le Gueronniere and Griper Nugent.  The disc is 11 spirited tracks, 3 originals plus covers of songs by people like Allen Touissant and Mac Rebennack, a/k/a Doctor John.  It swings mightily with that New Orleans thang, a joi de vivre that seems particular to that city, and Joe captures the feel of his home town rather well.

Tribute was produced by Krown along with Joe Miele, recorded at Jack Miele Productions, and the results are outstanding- exacting but not precious, clear but not brittle… a real natural sound and feel.  Lots of people involved here, from Joe’s band to a list of special guests that includes Ivan Neville, Jason Ricci and Walter Wolfman Washington.  Some of the songs you might know, like Allen Touissant’s Southern Nights which was a hit for Glen Campbell in 1977, while others will be discoveries of the purest joy.  The swing and the groove in these tracks is undeniable, thanks in no small part to the work of bassist Mark Brooks and drummer Doug Belote, and the mix of vocal and instrumental cuts keeps things fresh.  Great musicianship and a spirited selection of tunes make Tribute the closest thing to a perfect record as you can get.

HOT TRACKS: All Of It, Southern Nights, Tribute To Fess

IN THE KEY OF SORRY Pat McDougall (Mousetrap Music) *** ½

The title of this album attracted me right away.  Pat McDougall’s In The Key Of Sorry is a charming and disarming set of original blues based tunes that range from ecstatic love to romantic treachery, often with a wink and a smile.  This is pretty darn good company.

Pat McDougall has performed with a long list of artists and currently plays with his own band Tall Static as well as Ben Rice & The Hustle. “It’s a huge thrill to bring my songs to a wider audience through this recording” Pat says of his new album. “I’m infinitely grateful to the musicians who brought their talents to the project, and to my brilliant and unfailingly wise co-producer, Jimi Bott.”  Those musicians include his bandmates in Tall Static as well as noted guests like Kid Andersen, Kara Grainger, Lloyd Jones and Ben Rice… Pat’s in good company.

 McDougall handles the keyboards as well as the lead vocals.  While nobody will mistake him for Robert Plant there’s a tuneful, pleasant ‘ordinariness’ to his singing style that suits these songs very well. It gives In The Key Of Sorry a certain ‘hey, I think I know that guy’ kind of friendliness.  Only 4 of these numbers clock in at less than 5 minutes so despite some of the faster songs like Always Wanted To it doesn’t sound like Pat and his guys are in any hurry.

The lyrics don’t sound particularly autobiographical but McDougall is telling stories that we can all relate to.  We’ve all lived through what songs like Holding Back The Tears and the title track are on about and if you’ve ever found yourself in a relationship with the wrong person, Hot Soup And Ice Cream was written just for you- at least it feels that way.

Pat McDougall is an excellent keyboard player and no slouch as a songwriter either, plus he has the pull to gather a cast of talented players to bring his songs to life.  In The Key Of Sorry is a real charmer, alright.

HOT TRACKS: Hot Soup And Ice Cream, In The Key Of Sorry, Actions Speak Louder Than Words

POWER Ana Popovic (ArtisteXclusive Records) *****

I’d never heard of Ms. Popvic before this but was a fan before her new album was even half over. Power sees the Serbian born and raised hellfire guitarist plays some great blues but that’s really just a stepping stone for where this disc will take you- strap in for an amazing ride. got it exactly right when they said “In the male dominated world of blues, Ana Popovic continues to prove her mettle and might with killer guitar chops and well-crafted songwriting.”  There’s a sort of early 80’s jazz/ pop overlay at work on Power that makes her music even more beguiling.  She’s a very expressive guitar player, and as a singer I found her reminding me time and again of Helen Reddy, particularly her vibrato.  The best word to sum up the charms of this record is “eclectic”  You gotta love the SRV-style throw downs as well as tasty slide and wah playing, yet there’s a Ronnie Earl kind of restraint and jazz-like elegance that makes Power more than ‘just another blues record’.

If this album has an overall theme it’s unity. The cover is two hands holding, black and white; it’s a powerful image and illustration of what the world could use more of.  And, as the press info says, “this story is about friendship and embracing yourself with everything life throws at you”, and in times like these we could all use that kind of encouragement. Popovic is deft at pushing limits and bending genres to the point where it’s almost impossible to say that Power is exactly one thing or another stylistically, but discs that refuse to stand still in that regard tend to be the most exciting.  From the danceable rhythms of album opener Rise Up to the mid-tempo jazzy samba feel of Recipe Is Romance this baby will keep you guessing and entertained too.

Though the blues can be felt if you were to ask me to describe Power I’d call it slick jazz-flavored pop with exquisite musicianship, and the production is right on the money. I was impressed, and now I’m a fan.

HOT TRACKS:  Rise Up, Doin’ This, Recipe Is Romanc

THE ROCK HOUSE SESSIONS Nalani Rothrock (Jolani Music Group)   ****

When it comes to soul music that moves me it’s down to two things; the groove and the voice.  Nalani Rothrock’s new album The Rock House Sessions (Extended Cut) scores high marks in both regards.  Rothrock draws comparison to artists like Bonnie Raitt and Norah Jones as her songs combine threads of soul, blues and country, and under the watchful eye of award winning producer Kevin McKendree, the results are stellar.

Originally from Tampa Bay, Nalani left for Nashville with her co-writer and partner Joshua Lamkin.  On arriving in Music City they met Kevin McKendree, owner of The Rock House Studio. “There’s something inspiring about leaving all you’ve ever known and starting life in a new community that is driven and powered by music” Rothrock says. “Nashville was a whole new world to explore and Kevin made us feel right at home. (Plus) he introduced us to some world-class players and all around good people.”  Last year we got a taste of what to expect with her EP, and The Rock House Sessions (extended cut) is her first full length album since the move.

With multi-Grammy winning producer Kevin McKendree (Delbert McClinton, Buddy Guy, George Benson, John Hiatt, Little Richard) at the helm, Nalani and Joshua couldn’t have been in better hands.  The Rock House Sessions has a sort of country feel to it without being corny or twangy and she really rocks out on Just Before I Go so it’s best to be ready for anything here.  I won’t list all the musicians but they do include Lamkin on guitar and McKendree on keys as well as Nalani on vocals.  My immediate impression is that, as a singer, she sounds like a cross between Joss Stone and Amanda Marshall but there are more colors to her voice than just that.

The Rock House Sessions (Extended Cut) has an organic feel, folks in the studio working their asses off and serving the songs while enjoying themselves along the way.  You could almost call it ‘pop’ too, but what does that even mean nowadays?  Great voice, great songs, fine playing… this album is welcome on my stereo anytime.

HOT TRACKS:  Every Time I Close My Eyes, Just Before I Go, Midnight

BLACK ARCS RISING Statues (Lovely Records) ***

I’ve hit up Sweden for the blues and metal, so why not punk rock? Statues are a 3 piece and Black Arcs Rising is their third album, Green Day meets Husker Du and Sonic Youth, 90’s alt rock with melodic intensity. If that’s your era then these guys are speaking your language.

Black Arcs Rising is a noisy record that crashes against the walls with energetic abandon, which feels like the right vibe for the times we live in.  “The title warns of worse times” the band says.  “Black arcs can be seen in a chart, but it can also mean that there are black arcs rising from the ground to warn of worse times.  Our (songs) are often prophetic by accident.  The last record, Holocene, had a song called Lockdown and then came the pandemic.”  Punk prophets, maybe?

Musically speaking B.A.R. is driving, energetic and relentless.  The tempo does vary from tune to tune and time to time, but it almost feels like these 12 tracks are all one giant song, or perhaps each cut a movement within one. There aren’t any wanky guitar solos here nor are they needed… this isn’t that kind of rock & roll.  As one would expect these aren’t a bunch of songs about bonin’ chicks in the back seat of your car, Statues have their eyes on bigger concerns as they address the madness that drives our world. “It may already be too late to save the world as the doomsday clock is close to midnight” they say, “but by pointing to the absurdities of environmental destruction, consumerism, capitalism, the annexation of other countries and an unwillingness to change behavior, we are doing what we can to encourage change.”

Whether or not rock & roll is still an effective agent of change in today’s society is debatable, but Statues are giving it a go.  While the overdriven production values of Black Arc Rising aren’t to my taste I can appreciate what they’re doing and some of the tunes are pretty darn catchy… that’s enough.

HOT TRACKS:  Epochalypse, Underground, Phantasm

DRASTIC SYMPHONIES Def Leppard (Bludgeon Riffola/ EMI) *****+

Def Leppard is far from the first rock band to crawl in bed with a symphony, but nobody has done it better.  Drastic Symphonies is a re-working of some of their classic numbers and deep cuts, using a combination of original audio, new recordings by the band, and The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.  The results are stunning.

It’s been less than a year since their last studio record Diamond Star Halos, and I had no idea Drastic Symphonies was even coming until just a couple of days before release.  I saw a clip on You Tube, heard a cut on I Tunes and placed my order.  Other rock bands- Metallica, Kiss, Deep Purple- have worked with symphonies before so this isn’t a new idea.  BUT- with those bands the orchestra sometimes feels tacked on, and Def Leppard has reimagined some of their classic tracks and album cuts in the true spirit of collaboration with the RPO for something truly unique.  

There’s a feel of Eastern mysticism on songs like Turn To Dust and the way Paper Sun (one of my top five Def Lep cuts) is handled gives it a sort of Kashmir-like gravitas.  When you hear Joe Elliot’s stacked vocal harmonies on any given song there’s no doubt about who you’re listening to, and The RPO raises the drama level considerably, but not in a cheesy way.  No, they’re not just along for the ride; this has the feel and sound of a true collaboration that recalls Jimmy Page & Robert Plant’s No Quarter in 1994, described as “putting old pictures in new frames”. 

According to a short facebook video by the band, the sessions took place at Abbey Road Studios where, as Joe puts it, “THAT band made some records”.  What makes Drastic Symphonies work so well comes down to the song selection as much as anything.  Yes we have the big hits with the Hysteria album being most represented but we also hear from Diamond Star Halos and the early albums.  The song Hysteria has a similar feel to the hit we know, but the big surprise is Pour Some Sugar On Me being turned from a skanky rocker into a dramatic ballad with a male/ female duet.  On the band’s website guitarist Phil Collen says “we didn’t just want an orchestra plonked over our previous recordings.  We wanted to create something special where we would have something classic but present it in a brand new way.  Recording new parts, remixing previous sounds, taking some of our instruments out so the orchestra could breathe.”

With Drastic Symphonies Def Leppard has created something powerful, compelling and unique.  This is my favorite album of the year to date, it’s unbelievable- well done, lads.

HOT TRACKS:  Paper Sun, Pour Some Sugar On Me, Animal, Switch 625

COUNTERPARTS Rush (Anthem) RELEASED:  October 1993

This is Rush’s 15th studio record.  Unlike records from the preceding decade Counterparts is a rock & roll beast, almost primitive by Rush standards.  That could be why, even over juggernauts like 2112 or Moving Pictures, this is my favorite Rush album of all time; no farting around with weird time or key changes, they just rolled up their sleeves and got down to business.

This album is a logical progression for the band as they became less dependent on synths and technology, moving back toward the guitar/ bass/ drums sound they started with.  It also marks the return of producer Peter Collins, who returned after Rupert Hine guided Presto (1989) and Roll The Bones (1991). I remember Geddy Lee saying in the early 90’s that the songs from records like Bones sounded a lot tougher live than in the studio, and that was an aesthetic the band were interested in pursuing.  Guitarist Alex Lifeson also said that this was the first time since 1981’s Moving Pictures that there was a conscious decision to have the guitar take a more dominant role, resulting in a more satisfying album for him… and for fans like me too. 

The engineer used on these sessions was Kevin “The Caveman” Shirley, noted for his raw and natural sound, which required minimal use of reverb.  Counterparts, as a result, is one of Rush’s most aggressive sounding records, more straightforward rhythmically, a guitar album for sure, with Neil Peart’s lyrics the beating heart.  In considering the album title the band noted that the term is describes as both “duplicate” and “opposite”, a concept that intrigued lyricist Peart, according to Rush’s official website. “Considered in this way, contraries are reflections of each other” he said, “and not necessarily contradictions.”  The album starts with the 1-2 punch of Animate and Stick It Out (the first single) and goes from there.  The second single, Nobody’s Hero, is the deepest cut lyrically.  The first verse is about a gay friend of Peart’s, Ellis Booth,  when he lived in London for a time before joining Rush and addresses his death from Aids.  The second verse speaks of a girl murdered in Peart’s hometown of Port Dalhousie, the daughter of a family friend, rumored to be one of Paul Bernardo’s victims.

Though the records since this have shown moments of greatness, particularly Vapor Trails, to my heart and mind 1993’s Counterparts is the last great Rush album.

HOT TRACKS:  Nobody’s Hero, Between Sun And Moon, Cold Fire


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