Lucky 13 Babaux & The Peacemakers (Contra Basso music) **** ½
This is the debut album from this Colorado outfit, an introspective bit of roots rock that you will verily dig. Lucky 13 is largely framed by the gruff singing and dobro playing of Cristian Basso (a/k/a Babaux)- it’s a warm, friendly sound. Though this is the band’s debut it’s the 13th record he’s done, which explains the title.
Singer/ songwriter Babaux picked up the dobro during the Covid quarantine, sparking a major shift in his song writing style. “I started writing like crazy because the dobro was this new avenue of expression, it got me out of my old song writing patterns on the bass” he says. “First and foremost I’m still a bass player, but the thing that really inspired me with the dobro was the slide aspect. It changed my approach to writing (and) brought me closer to what I mean to say in a more direct fashion than try to do a lot of word craftsmanship.”
Lucky 13 has a laid-back intimate Laurel Canyon feel in the best traditions of rustic storytellin’, what these days is referred to as “Americana”. The Peacemakers, his band, are Alana Velvis on drums and percussion, Niek Velvis on bass and Eric Martinez on lead and rhythm guitar. “Eric, Alana and Niek are all accomplished producers, engineers and songwriters” Babaux notes. “They each added things that speak to their own music sensibilities, and it was beautiful.” The disc shifts languidly from jam band-rootsiness to swampy bayou blues and acoustic funk with inspired results. Cristian isn’t a ballsy rock singer, there’s a humanity to his vaguely casual vocals that somehow fits the music and its friendly, engaging style. There are times, now and again, where he reminds me of the late Doug Bennett of Doug & The Slugs.
Having all 11 of Lucky 13’s songs built on the dobro with its open tuning gives them a kind of sameness. “One of the more challenging parts (of this) was how to make the songs different from one another, but having these other amazing musicians/ writers/ producers to collaborate with helped resolve that” Babaux explains, and I would argue that they were only partially successful in that. Still, putting the disc on feels similar to a casual conversation around a backyard fire on a chilly Saturday night- and who doesn’t enjoy that?
HOT TRACKS: Blame It On Me, Without The Medicine, Bye-Bye To You
THE LOUISIANA RECORD Jimmy Carpenter (Gulf Coast Records) ****
The latest from this award winning sax player is a swanky covers record. Having lived in New Orleans from 2004 to 2016, the Crescent City has helped to shape Carpenter’s musical vision, and The Louisiana Record is his love letter to the music that has richly nourished his soul.
“Without question, New Orleans and the music that flows out of that great city have had a huge impact on me musically and personally” Jimmy says. “These are songs by iconic American songwriters, just a few of my favorites that helped shape me and my approach to writing, playing and living. It is impossible to overstate the influence of New Orleans, its music and its musicians have had on me as a player, songwriter and performer.” The Louisiana Record is definitely one from the heart, and if you’re familiar at all with Nola’s music, you’ll feel that here.
The idea for a Louisiana-themed covers album came from Gulf Coast co-owner Mike Zito, who also plays guitars here. “I admit I was skeptical at first” Carpenter says, “but the longer I thought about it the more I liked the idea. The musical bar in New Orleans is set very high, and it’s both terrifying and inspiring.” Joining Jimmy and Mike for what they call this ‘red beans & rice run of 11 songs’ are Casandra Faulconer on bass, John Gros on keys, and Wayne Mareau on drums, people Jimmy refers to as friends and a huge part of his upbringing in that scene.
Songs like I Hear You Knocking and Travelin’ Mood are tunes Jimmy heard Fats Domino and Dr. John do live. “The one that I was sure I wanted to do was the beautiful ballad All Of These Things written by Allen Touissant and recorded originally by Art ‘Popa Funk’ Neville” Jimmy recalls. “It is the epitome of New Orleans soul; simple, melodic, grooving, and a great song for some pretty sax.” If Jimmy Carpenter’s goal here was to capture the sound and the soul of New Orleans on this disc it’s safe to say his mission was a success.
“This record is very different for me, recorded almost completely live, with simple instrumentation and no frills” Jimmy says. “Strong melodies, laid back, grooving, iconic songs that were a real pleasure to play and sing, especially with this group of musicians, and literally on the bayou at Dockside Studios.” Jimmy Carpenter may call Las Vegas home these days, but The Louisiana Record proves he’ll always have New Orleans in his soul. The only thing to get you closer to experiencing it for yourself would be a plane ticket, and you might want to make that one way.
HOT TRACKS: I Hear You Knocking, Barefootin’, Bringing It On Home To Me
HARD TIMES John Primer (Blues House Productions) ****+
Some people are adept at imitating various types of blues, but if you want it straight up Chicago style, John Primer is your man and Hard Times is what you’re looking for. “The name of my new cd reflects the world we’re living in today” Primer says. “I recorded it to help us get through these really hard times.” Feeling bad has rarely sounded this seductively good.
John Primer started playing on Maxwell Street for tips then got his first gig at Theresa’s Lounge in the 70’s. He was the band leader for Jr. Wells, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, and Magic Slim before leading his own Real Deal blues Band in 1995. He learned directly from the masters, so when Primer preaches the blues, we should all listen closely. As I’ve noted many times on my internet blues radio show Hellhounds On My Trail to deal with having the blues it helps to sing or listen to the blues, and I get the feeling John Primer would agree. Hard Times is one of those discs that makes you feel better, knowing that you’re not the only one that has gone or is going through your particular hard times; that’s quite comforting.
Hard Times is well produced without being too shiny, with John’s voice and well-seasoned guitar picking at the centre. His Real Deal Blues Band is along for the ride too; Steve Bell on harmonica, Lenny Media on drums and Dave Forte on bass, with special guests Rick Kreher on rhythm guitar, Johnny Iguana on piano, and his 17 year old daughter singing in the studio (Tough Times) for the first time. So while it may be Primer’s name on the cd cover, this is clearly a band effort and a labor of love at that.
Chicago blues has a feel and an attitude that makes it the most popular strain of this type of music, and Hard Times is full right to the nuts with that spirit. The disc doesn’t push the envelope like Toronzo Cannon or Kingfish might- you could even say this is a might old fashioned in that regard, but the blues is a music built on traditions and HT makes you feel a part of or a witness to that continuum. Thanks to the musicians already noted above these 13 tracks- 12 written by John Primer, 1 by his daughter Aliya- are all played with a spirit and vitality that makes the music fresh. Franky Bruneel, writing in Belgium’s Back To The Roots blues magazine calls John Primer “a true ambassador of Chicago blues from the heyday of the genre. His energetic blues is among the purest you can hear today.” If you dig Chicago blues, Hard Times should be in your collection.
HOT WAX: Hard Times, Chicago, Hot Meal
SKELETONE MACHINE Sweet Undertow (Mother West) ****++
Here is Sweet Undertow’s inspiring debut. Skeletone Machine is a genre bending blues fuelled look at humanity that, at times, feels like a long lost Mellencamp record- due in no small part to the depth of subject matter as well as Eddy Undertow’s raspy singing voice and the rustic instrumentation. It may take you awhile to climb inside, but it is worth the effort.
Skeletone Machine captures years of frontman Eddie Undertow’s guitar-in-hand globetrotting and inquisitive artist’s ear, as the songs reach for something universal. “There’re songs about love, songs about lust, about death, about lonesomeness and about anger” Eddy says. “I try to create moods and paint with lyrics, trying to evoke images in peoples’ minds… but also, y’know, shake their asses.” It seems like he’s going about it in the right way.
The press info categorizes this as “authentic bluesy Americana”, but the psychedelic overtones of a track like Ride Out The Night with its fuzz-tone guitar leads and the galloping rock beat that kicks in about 2/3rds of the way through begs to differ. Stones- inspired acoustic grunge, maybe? That feels closer. The band is Eddy on vocals and acoustic and electric guitar, Jim Semitekol on guitars and bass, Dave Tavel on drums, , John Eckstrom on bass, along with a number of special guests. Skeletone Machine was recorded in San Francisco and Oakland, and produced by Semitekol and Undertow with spacious and organic results.
The songs delve deep into the human condition, yet are still eager to show you a good time. The press info mentioned above calls Eddy Undertow “a guitar slinging adventurer who finds meaning and music even in life’s easy-to-miss mundanities”, and it’s this search for the truth in those situations that make Skeletone Machine one of those records that sticks with you. There’s an emotional darkness here that I’m reacting strongly to that makes unwrapping the gifts this disc offers imperative. Gonna keep this within reach for a very long time.
HOT TRACKS: Riding On Into The Light, Kingdom Come With Me, Still Looking For You
SUBURBIA Fans Of The Dark (Frontiers) *** ½
Here is the sophomore release for these Swedish hard rockers. Suburbia is a sequel of sorts to last year’s self-titled debut, tying in with drummer Freddie Allen’s vision to do as the great hard rock bands of the 70’s and 80’s did; constantly work on their craft and release new music with regularity. Equal parts Survivor and Saxon, old rockers like me could get really used to this.
Founder and main songwriter Allen knew what he was after when he took the band into the studio to record Suburbia. “It’s pretty much a sibling to the first album, with similar themes and ideas” Freddie says, “only this time going deeper into the world where most of us grew up; where we first got in touch with hard rock music, horror films on VHS, teen culture, and all else that shaped us… the suburbs.” Indeed there’s a retro 80’s-ness to these songs musically speaking that takes direct aim at what the group is trying to achieve. The riffs of guitarist Oscar Bromvall and the bravado of singer Alex Falk in particular reach for a heroic level of performance and musicality that you don’t hear much in hard rock these days.
I understand and applaud Fans Of The Dark’s commitment to a singular vision, but recreating this sort of vibe may prove to be a double edged sword. On one hand some may think of Suburbia as something different from what’s happening on the hard rock scene today, while those that clearly remember the particular era that inspires FOTD might think ‘we’ve heard this kind of thing before.’ But yet another angle is that it reminds older rock fans fondly of a time when life was good and dreams were still plentiful, which can be powerful.
Suburbia was produced and mixed by Lars Fredrik Swahn and Allen in a style that recallsTom Allom’s mid-80’s work with Judas Priest which, to me, was a little soft around the edges- but then again those records were HUGE so what the hell do I know? The mix of suburban and horror imagery is highly entertaining, which helps carry the day.
A mix of tight riff rockers along with a couple of epics in Pirates Of Maine and Restless Soul makes for an appealing blend of atypical hard rock elements that I find engaging- I suspect that you may as well.
HOT TRACKS: Night Of The Living Dead, The Goblin King, Restless Soul
SAINTS AND SINNERS House Of Lords (Frontiers) ****
This is the latest and 11th studio release from House Of Lords. Singer James Christian is still at the helm, and Saints And Sinners will no doubt prove to be another jewel in the band’s crown.
The road from HOH’s 1989 debut to here has been a bumpy one. After touring behind their 2nd album (Sahara) with Nelson, the group disbanded, then got back together with a new lineup in 1992 for another album, but grunge was on the rise and the group went into hibernation for the next 8 years. In Y2K they put out the progressive-leaning The Power & The Myth which fans did not regard particularly well. After a short European tour James Christian decided a course correction was required so he steered the band back toward House Of Lords’ trademark arena rock sound, and that’s pretty much where we find the band today.
Not unlike Whitesnake with David Coverdale, this band will always be House Of Lords as long as James Christian is at the mic. Today the rest of the band includes guitarist Jimi Bell, keyboard player Mark Mangold and drummer Johan Koleberg. No mention of a bassist in the info, so it’s gotta be Bell or Christian, or perhaps Mangold handles bass on the keys. Saints And Sinners picks up where 2020’s New World-New Eyes left off, spectacularly well produced hard rock rife with but not overpowered by keyboard textures. A good mix of crunchy, occasionally epic rockers with requisite ‘power ballads’ like Avalanche provide a nice balance. Keeping the needle pinned to 10 can be exhausting, as can an overabundance of belly rubbin’ tunes too.
Sure there are edgier and more out there bands than House of Lords, but these guys are hard to touch in terms of song craft and musicianship. Christian is still in fine voice, I’m really digging Jimi Bell’s guitar playing here, and overall the songs have a no-nonsense 4-on-the-floor propulsion that can be quite exhilarating, as on the appropriately named Razzle Dazzle. House Of Lords haven’t reinvented the wheel with Saints And Sinners, but they don’t need to. As with other period bands like Whitesnake HOH are known for a particular sound and style, and this disc proves that they have that nailed right to the wall. While it’s true that some bands stay in the game too long and overstay their welcome (I’m looking at you, Kiss and Motley Crue) House Of Lords is still kicking ass and taking names. S&S is quite excellent.
HOT TRACKS: Takin’ My Heart Back, Razzle Dazzle, Avalanche