FINER THAN SIN Enuff Z’Nuff (Frontiers) ***
Here’s the latest album for these Illinois based rockers, but having been a glam and/or hair metal snob for years, I’ve routinely ignored them. Finer Than Sin is their 17th studio album, a disc that mixes catchy riffs with Beatlesque vocal harmonies, not unlike Cheap Trick- pretty cool.
Since forming in Chicago in 1984, like most bands of this vintage. E.Z. has endured quite a few lineup changes. Today, Enuff Z’Nuff is founder Chip Z’Nuff on bass and vocals, Tory Stoffregen and Tony Fennell on guitars and Dan Hill (not THAT Dan Hill) on drums. More than mere glam or hair metal, it’s fair to call this hard rock tunes with a power pop sensibility. If you’re after heroic, daredevil guitar solos, this is not your album. If insistent, catchy riffs embedded with an almost hypnotic vocal mix is, this disc just might give you a boner.
I like the musical muscle, the gristle that forms the backbone of Finer Than Sin, I’ve been a sucker for good pop melodies since forever, so that’s what makes this album work for me. The guitar playing isn’t particularly fancy, and Z’Nuff and Hill are a no-frills rhythm section, which is perfect for this kind of stuff. Chip is a good singer but it can be hard to tell here because all of the layered vocals. The harmonies work well but have a tendency to overwhelm and it’s possible to get lost in the wash. Perhaps the band itself recognized this; a surprisingly excellent remake of The Sex Pistol’s God Save The Queen swings the pendulum the other way.
Decent songs, solid playing and meaty production values make Finer Than Sin a good effort- you could certainly do worse than emulating bands like The Beatles and Cheap Trick.
HOT TRACKS: Intoxicated, Soundcheck, Trampoline
ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE Bruce Springsteen (Columbia) *** ½
A covers album here from The Boss, his second after 2006’s We Shall Overcome: The Pete Seeger Sessions. Only The Strong Survive is 15 soul and R&B classics done with feeling and panache. “I wanted to make an album where I just sang and tried to do justice to the great American songbook of the 60’s and 70’s” Bruce says. And that’s exactly what he does.
This is a ‘Rod Stewart move’- Stewie took a late career detour to do several American Songbook records. Critic John Murphy referred to Only The Strong Survive as “pretty much Bruce does karaoke, but when it’s done this well and with so much obvious love for the source material it’s irresistible”, and he’s got a point. The production is lush as were the original versions, and Springsteen isn’t just marking time- he’s singing these songs because of what they mean to him which gives them unexpected depth, and I respect that.
According to the write-up in Wikipedia, Bruce recorded this album at his Thrill Hill recording studio in New Jersey following the sessions for 2020’s deeply moving Letter To You, so you could say he was on something of a spiritual roll. Some of these songs I was not immediately familiar with while others I clearly remember hearing on AM radio as a kid. As a longtime Springsteen fan (though I haven’t always been) I enjoy hearing him get outside of himself to sing and interpret other people’s songs. His husky voice wears the tunes well, and production values that imitate the soul vibe of the 60’s and 70’s is nigh on perfect.
At the age of 73 Bruce Springsteen is entitled to look back on the music of his youth, and with Only The Strong Survive we get to ride shotgun- lucky us.
HOT TRACKS: Nightshift, The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore, Forgot To Be Your Lover (with Sam Moore)
THE WORLD COULD CHANGE Layla Zoe (Cable Car Records) ****+
If you want to talk about ladies that sing the blues, and I mean really own it, Layla Zoe is a necessary part of that conversation. I’ve been following her for a number of years now, and was delighted to find her latest album in my inbox. The World Could Change is a tour de force, a unique blend of blues styles with plenty of range, muscle and passion.
The World Could Change finds Layla hooking up creatively with multi-instrumentalist Henrik Frieschlader, 9 years after their previous collaboration, 2013’s The Lily. The passion and fire in her voice is a good match for Freischlader’s earthy guitar playing style, but this album is more than just ‘pedal to the metal’. There’s that, but there are some nice changeups and grooves explored too, like Brother, Praying Kind and the flat-out gorgeous Baby Bird. These numbers feel like the soul of the album, but when she leans back and roars boy, you’d better watch out.
As with previous releases, The World Could Change is sonically terrific. Henrik produces as well as playing most of the instruments, with the exception of Moritz Fuhrhop’s sympathetic keyboard work, plus vocals and backing vocals from Ms. Zoe herself. When you start absorbing the lyrics, it feels like the record is about more than the usual blues tropes. Personal subjects sit well with more worldly concerns as we all watch the daily news and inevitably mutter “Oh jeez, what next?!?” Admittedly it’s her fire ‘n’ brimstone stuff that first hooked me; specifically Highway Of Tears from 2016’s Breaking Free; but when she gets intimate and personal on Brother on the new disc I’m smitten again in an entirely different way.
The World Could Change is one of the must have records of 2022, an album to be heard and felt.
HOT TRACKS: Dark Heart, Brother, Watch What You’re Doing
TRIAL BY FIRE Mantric Momentum (Frontiers) ****
Ever wonder what would happen if members of Judas Priest and Styx got together to form a band? It might sound something like this. Trial By Fire is the debut from Mantric Momentum, a hard rock outfit centered around the talents of singer Terje Haroy and multi-instrumentalist Christer Haroy… not exactly household names nor are they easy to pronounce, but with a cadre of special guests they’ve created a thick, progressive, heavy debut.
The genesis of Mantric Momentum traces back to 2011 when Christer co-wrote a song with Danish producer Jacob Hansen. In the ensuing decade a handful of singles were released with various creative and artistic partners, then Haroy got the itch to do a full length album project with a full-time singer. His cousin Terje Haroy was the perfect choice; he’s a powerhouse singer, and they had already worked on several projects together.
This type of thick, melodic metal is Frontiers’ stock in trade but Trail By Fire stands out from the others. It isn’t buried in keyboard textures as other releases have been, plus the double kick action, staccato riffing and wall-of-guitars sound are a real kick in the pants. Terje has a good, meaty metal voice (definitely not a ridiculous Cookie Monster growl!) and Christer’s guitar solos never seem to get too “weedly-weedly”, as progressive rock can sometimes be. This disc is an invigorating combination of melody and power, quite well played… in a way it reminds me of Stryper too, and I love those guys. Headbangers should definitely check this out.
HOT TRACKS: Course Of Fate, In The Eye Of The Hurricane, Fighter