Hot Wax Album Reviews by the ROCK DOCTOR Oct. 10, 2022

HONEST LIES Justin Saladino Band Zeb Media/ (independent) ****

Once again Justin Saladino does not disappoint. Honest Lies, released Sept.16th, is contemporary blues with modern day chops and savvy fueled by songs that acknowledge their connection to the genre’s past.  Of course it doesn’t hurt that Justin is a great guitar player.

Produced by Ariel Posen (The Bros., Landreth), Honest Lies explores interpersonal relationships, social and political issues, the perception of truth, and being honest with yourself.   It’s the expected blend of blues, soul and roots-based rock that predicated his rise on Montreal’s vibrant music scene, and having played Montreal’s internationally renowned Jazz festival is a feather in the cap for Justin and his band.  “To play with my band on one of the outdoor stages is a huge honor” he says. “This year… rather than playing things safe, we decided to add 5 unreleased songs to the show from Honest Lies and recorded the show. It’s my favorite show yet!”

The Justin Saladino Band has a certain savoir faire that reminds me of Eric Bibb, the way they combine traditional blues idioms with more progressive melodic elements.  There’s warmth and immediacy to this record and when I found out they used vintage analog gear for these sessions, all I could think was “of course.”  This is almost a soul album too as the songs themselves and the musicianship is quite groovalicious, and you’ll hear some southern rock and country textures as well. Justin has an easy going vocal style, particularly on a track like Half Heartedly that makes this disc easy to be around, but when he gears up for a solo fire shoots from his fingertips.

Some great, gentle acoustic guitar on this record too as it offers up several different types of moods, feels and styles.  A song like Sink Or Swim that starts off the record and kicks in the door at the top of Honest Lies is pretty much the exact opposite of Let Me In Again near the other end of the record, yet the fact that Saladino feels so comfortable and at home rocking out or delivering a gentle, mid-tempo lover’s plea speaks volumes about how he’s grown into the writer and player that he is now.

Honest Lies is the 4th Justin Saladino Band album to join my collection and it’s everything I hoped it would be.  The songs and their moving observations on the human condition combined with exquisite production make it a disc I will return to when I need a lift.

HOT TRACKS:  Sink Or Swim, Let Me In Again, Don’t Worry About It


SONGS FOR PEOPLE HIGH & LOW Mike Pope (Blind Owl) ****+

RIPENING (AIN’T IT STRANGE) Mike Pope (Blind Owl) ****+

Two albums here released simultaneously by one of the best kept secrets of the Southern California songwriting community.  He’s a finger pickin’ guitar player whose songs have earned comparisons to Leonard Cohen, Lead Belly and Taj Mahal. These albums are quite different from one another, so let’s look at them one at a time.

Songs For People High & Low is an acoustic collection of confessions, romantic yet tragic at the same time. Fans of Townes Van Zandt will connect to this as it delves into the tangled layers of the human psyche, full of self-reflection and lonesome wandering.  It can be too dark and depressing for some, but I love this sort of stuff; what the press release refers to as “music for memories and the long shadows at dusk-a daydream serenade colored in faded sepias and bruised blues.”  The sweet release of the Maryanne reprise is a welcome change of pace.  This album is the kind of thing that you put on when you want to be alone and think about stuff, maybe even go down some emotional roads that you’ve been putting off for far too long. It’s cleansing.

Ripening (Ain’t It Strange) can be seen as the flipside of the same coin, like Dylan going electric in ’65.  Here Pope embraces a grittier punk poet vison that some might say recalls Joe Strummer’s solo stuff.  To my ears- and just as importantly my heart- it feels closer to a Neil Young & Crazy Horse sort of thing.  The music is ragged and unapologetic, with a swaggering energy that’s nigh on impossible to ignore. What makes it even cooler is that the album was tracked live as a single performance as the band pursued raw grandeur.  Each song just sort of falls into the next one as it devours the energy of the one that came before.  This is an exciting experiment that, to some, may sound like an abject failure; certainly if you’re looking for tight, clean lines with technical exactitude… but in terms of raw emotion, it’s tough to beat.

Songs For People High & Low nods to Townes Van Zandt and Bon Iver, where Ripening is described as “an electrified song poem”.  Together these discs “paint the picture of an artist in evolution as he explores the space between genres.”  As I age and the world seems to slide into shades of black and gray, this music is encouragement to see things in a different way.

HOT TRACKS: (SONGS FOR PEOPLE…) Mirror, Ain’t It Fine, Maryanne (Again)

(RIPENING) Ain’t It Strange, Homonculus, Every Loving Herd Does As It Should

HANGIN’ AT THE DeVILLE LOUNGE The Rusty Wright Band (Sadson Music) *****++

Ever hear of a blues concept album?  Well you have now. Hangin’ At The DeVille Lounge is a blues powered fever dream about the devil’s juke joint.  The disc is loaded front to back with greasy, grimy, dirty blues, lots of it slow… and I can’t get nearly enough of it.

The inspiration behind Rusty Wright’s new album is a now defunct dive bar in Flint, Michigan, on the bad side of town.  When the church down the road had a sign boasting “Sinners Welcome!” The Deville Lounge changed their flashing sign to “Sinners welcome… & we have beer!”  Therein lies the spark of inspiration behind Hangin’ At The Deville Lounge.  For about 20 years Rusty has been writing mostly tongue-in-cheek tunes that flirt with blues culture’s ‘devil at the crossroads’ imagery, but here he jumps in with both feet to come up with something special.

The RWB’s sound is described as “a hot-rod fusing of Texas-style blues, swingin’ boogie and Southern guitar rock”, and that’s just what this disc delivers. “I was born in Michigan but my family comes from Florence, Alabama” Rusty says. “I spent my summers down there so I grew up with that Southern soul influence as well as the Motor City angst.”  He refers to himself as ‘a creature of extremes’ and that is certainly reflected here in his 8th album.  After suffering for years from seasonal depression he and wife (and bandmate) Laurie-Lacross-Wright) decided to relocate from Michigan to Florida. “I probably wouldn’t be alive today if we hadn’t moved south” he admits. “The cold, dark winter months in an economically depressed area just about did me in.”  Hey guys… I can relate.

Rusty Wright has a Southern rock vocal sound and he plays some beautiful blues guitar here too, but when the occasion calls for it he can crank it up with the best of ‘em.  If you love Stevie Ray, you’ll totally get this cat.  It helps, too, that he has just the right band in the station wagon with him; wife Laurie on guitar, lead and harmony vocals, Billy Agner on bass and harmony vocals, and Vail Hayes on drums.  From up-tempo rockers like No Turnin’ Back to the gorgeous slow blues of No Man Is An Island The Rusty Wright Band is a force to be reckoned with.  Their 2015 record Wonder Man was nominated for album of the year by Vintage Guitar Magazine alongside discs by Jeff Beck, Joe Bonamassa, David Gilmore and Sonny Landreth so yeah- they can hang with the big dogs.

Hangin’ At the Deville Lounge is an irresistible mix of southern rock and muscular blues that will blow your mind as it blows you away.  From the intriguing Welcome To The DeVille at the start of the record to the SRV/Hendrixian workout Devil Music at the other end, this is the most powerful blues album I’ve heard in an already inspiring year. GREAT stuff.

HOT TRACKS: Welcome To The DeVille, No Man Is An Island, No Turnin’ Back

SALT Moonfruits (independent) ***

This is the 2nd full length album for this bilingual Ottawa-based contemporary folk act.  Salt is gauzy vocal harmonies over acoustic backdrops as Kaitlin Milroy and Alex Milaire unfold 12 gentle songs that weave stories about family, responsibility and loss in uncertain times of climate change and inequality.  Transformation- personal, spiritual, political- is Salt’s guiding light.

The foundation of Moonfruits’ sound is, of course, the blend of Alex and Kaitlin’s voices; his a gritty baritone and hers a choral trained mezzo, that sets them apart from many other folk acts.  Salt was co-produced by the band along with Charles and Olivier Fairfield.  The sound of the album is relatively uncomplicated and uncluttered, leaving plenty of room for that gorgeous blend of voices to take center stage.   This is one of those records that require more than just a couple of spins to take in.  As you absorb the melodies and sonics you’ll need to pay attention to the lyrics too or you’re cheating yourself.  As deceptively simple as the production may be, there’s simply too much going on all at once to grab everything as it goes by.

Alex wrote Pretzel Bell in honor of Kait’s maternal and paternal grandfathers, who met in post-WWII London.  He was 17 when he wrote the title track for his maternal grandmother after asking her what form she’d like to take if reincarnated.  Her answer, by the way, was “Heaven is good enough for me!”  Renter’s Ramble stands out from the rest of the record with its display of ‘crazed restlessness (cabin fever) felt by most of us during the pandemic.  And Seven Billion is an up-tempo but realistic look at the selfish few who profit from exploiting the world, and the potent possibility that lies in harnessing people-power, with its repeated refrain of “we all do well when we all do well”.  Salt has been rightly described as a “harmonies first” record, and you’ll need to take that in as you dig further into some of the dark undercurrents that these gentle melodies are hiding in plain sight.

Salt is an emotionally complex journey that is properly labeled as “rooted and astral, tender and powerful, foreboding and hopeful, cradling all the convictions and contradictions of its songwriters.”   It’s not the sort of trip everybody is equipped to handle but if you can open yourself up enough to let Moonfruits’ Salt in, you’ll find it worth your while.

HOT TRACKS: Renter’s Ramble, Pretzel Bell, Atoms Of The Apartment

WAITING FOR THE DAYLIGHT Erja Lyytinen (Tuohi Records) ****

It’s the surprises that rock my world as a writer.  I’d never heard of Erja Lyytinen before, and looking at the Waiting For The Daylight cover I expected something gauzy and atmospheric, like Enya with a guitar.  What I heard instead was blistering, well-played blues rock and some ripping slide guitar. This is the 3rd album for the Helsinki native and it’s a killer.

For her latest, Erja wanted to make Daylight, recorded in the first half of 2022, a real band album. “We practiced the songs a lot before going into the studio” she says, “which you can really hear on the tracks.  I also wanted to improve my chops and skills so I practiced a lot, exploring different guitarists and their techniques.  In some of the songs I played over 20 different guitar tracks- the album sounds huge!”  She’s right; it does.

In listening to Waiting For The Daylight I can’t imagine anyone merely saying “she’s pretty good, for a girl”… she’s a great guitar player, period.  After opening for Carlos Santana in 2018 at Helsinki’s Kaisaniemi Park, he invited her onstage to play with his band in front of 20,000.  Santana was impressed, saying “It was inspiring to see her play. It was from the future, and I like the future!” and Carlos knows a thing or three and great guitar playing.

This disc is full of raw passion and emotion, from Lyytinen and her band.  As a singer she’s got a great voice, exact yet full of fire; not unlike Celine Dion but, you know… not cheesy.  When she sings about getting cheated or being down, you believe her- if I wasn’t feeling that, you and I would not be having this conversation right now. She has a sturdy rhythm section in bassist Tatu Back and drummer Iiro Laitinen, and keyboardist Harri Taittonen adds the right textures and flourishes to raise the drama even higher. As a guitar player Erja strikes me as being somewhere between SRV and Robin Trower, with maybe a touch of Jeff Beck thrown in.  Carlos Santana nicknamed her “Lighting”, as in Lightnin’ Hopkins.  Oh she has the skills alright.

Waiting For The Daylight rocks hard, and any one of these 9 original tracks will have you reaching over to your stereo (or whatever you listen to music on) to turn it up. I’ve been enjoying this album all week and, thanks to having a semi-decent stereo, so has Darlene next door too.  Now I just gotta dig back and find out what her first two albums are about.

HOT TRACKS: Bad Seed, Waiting For The Daylight, Love Bites

THE CLAUDETTES GO OUT!  The Claudettes (Forty Below Records) *** ½

The Claudettes’ new album is a celebration of the sense of freedom we all felt with the lifting of pandemic restrictions. The Claudettes Go Out is smart pop music with attitude and feeling, a punkishness at times that is totally refreshing and fun.

The Claudettes began as a duo a decade ago when drummer Michael Caskey got together with pianist/ composer Johnny Iguana, but have grown to a 4 piece including vocalist Berit Ulseth,  Together they create what is called “a one-of-a-kind, piano-powered roots-pop sound”, which is joyous and fun.  This diverse collection of songs was overseen by Grammy-winning producers/ mixers Ted Hutt (Violent Femmes, Old Crow Medicine Show) and Kevin Killen (David Bowie, U2, Elvis Costello), and judging from their past associations, these guys were uniquely qualified to help the band realize their vision for this latest album.

The Claudettes Go Out is meant to be celebratory and it does not disappoint. They sing about memories with Time Won’t Take Our Times Away, of secret love on Park Bench, and the never ending stream of beautiful, loveable people all around us in There’s Too Much Affection In The World.  Their sense of humor is on display with The American Sky, Dozing In The Crypt, Exposure, plus there’s a self-aware ode to alcohol called A Lovely View.  Perhaps the album is best summed up by The Show Must Go On (And Then The Show Must End), which urges everyone to cherish what we love while it’s still around.  All in all, it’s actually pretty deep for a nice little pop record bent on showing you a good time.

No show-offy soloing here, with The Claudettes it’s all about the songs.  The Claudettes Go Out is like one side of an intensely satisfying conversation, touching on a lot of things that touch us all- maybe some more than others.  Tie that to some jaunty and occasionally unexpected melodies, and you’ve got something special… and pretty dang cool.  The one sheet (press info) shows 10 songs, yet the download I received has 15 tracks, so it looks like I got some extra goodies.

HOT TRACKS: Dancing In The Crypt, Park bench, The Show Must Go On



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