RANCHWRITERS Ranch Writers (True North) **** ½
This is a joint project between Barney Bentall and Geoffrey Kelly. I’ve been a fan of Barney’s since his first album with The Legendary Hearts in ’88 and am no stranger to Geoffrey’s work with Spirit Of The West. Ranchwriters is an instrumental record of gentle and dreamy melodies with almost spiritual grooves, and it’s a treat.
Bentall and Kelly, friends for over 40 years, came together at Barney’s ranch in the Cariboo region of British Columbia during 2020’s relative isolation, ultimately bringing Ranchwriters to life. “On nice days, we might park ourselves on a couple of chairs by the creek” Barney recalls. “We tend to lose ourselves, become comically oblivious to any noise or frivolity going on (around us).”
The decision to make this an instrumental album is easy to understand. “Being well aware that the times are strange, and words don’t seem to be able to fully capture what the world is going through, we delved deeper and deeper into that instrumental writing process” Bentall says. “There’s no agenda and no pressure to come up with a thoughtful and meaningful lyric.” Adds Geoffrey, “Making the Ranchwriters album with Barney is a gift that I never saw coming.”
Many of the melodies on Ranchwriters were inspired by alternate tunings, something that Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake and the late Jackie Leven are known for. “Not to dwell on the technicalities, but I feel this methodology is at the core of the album” Barney says. “The other element is finger picking; there’s hardly a strum to be found.”
Fans of Bentall’s rock stuff with The Legendary Hearts might be surprised by this record, but if you’re familiar with the solos albums he’s been doing since 2006’s Gift Horse (an excellent album by the way) or what he’s done with The High Bar Gang you’ll feel completely at home. Ranchwriters was produced, engineered and mixed by John Raham, and it feels like you’re on the front porch of that old cabin on Barney’s ranch. Other musicians contributed remotely from across Canada, Newfoundland to Vancouver Island. The vibe is described as ‘cinematic Canadiana’, and that feels about right.
At the end of the day I’d describe the 12 melodies that make up Ranchwriters as gentle and healing. I’ll leave the final word to Barney; “Songs with words can be a source of comfort, but sometimes it’s nice to let your mind, heart and soul float in any direction. I hope you enjoy it.” I do- very much so. www.barneybentall.com
KEY CUTS: Bonaparte Plateau, Marble Canyon Rag, Winter Flood
SCRUTINY The Bowmans (Tourbo Music/ Mother West) ***+
Claire and Sarah Bowman are twin sisters that have been making music together since childhood. An indie folk duo, Scrutiny (their 5th album) is well crafted acoustic-based folk/pop that reminds me of classic Simon & Garfunkel; occasionally buoyant melodies that belie the serious subject matter dealt with in the lyrics, finding a way of being light without making light of personal struggles. They harmonize in a way only sisters can.
Lyrically speaking, this is a highly personal record with themes of family dysfunction, coping mechanisms, destructive societal norms, and overcoming mental illness. Scrutiny is Claire & Sarah Bowman’s way of handling their grief in the wake of their mother’s passing but even so, it feels like their lives have been leading up to this particular moment in time. The girls began creating songs as children, continuing performing their originals throughout their college years, but they left behind conventional careers to move to New York and pursue their muse full time. They became a part of the local scene, playing clubs in Greenwich Village, Brooklyn and The Lower East Side. Roadwork followed the release of their first album Far From Home, and there’s been no shortage of praise for their alt folk songs.
The press info I received with Scrutiny says this is recommended for those that like Brandi Carlile, Indigo Girls, Florence & The Machine and The War On Drugs. The album feels at times like a modern pop construction, yet occasionally more organic. The cover photo is the Bowmans as little girls, the inner sleeve is a collage of photographs from their childhood, plus there’s a poster with an oil painting by Claire on one side and lyrics on the other.
Produced by Sarah Bowman, Scrutiny is full of shadows that you may need to prepare yourself to meet. Sonically it’s a beautiful sounding record with voices that combine in a preternatural sisterly way, implying an intimacy can be a little uncomfortable for some. Claire & Sarah take us down some dark roads in these songs, and if you’ve considered some of the themes that they explore here, you may even catch your own reflection out of the corner of your eye- and maybe that’s not a bad thing. Scrutiny is one of those albums I need to be in a particular mood to hear, but when I find myself in that place I can’t imagine better comfort than this. www.thebowmansmusic.com
KEY CUTS: Fight, Digger, Mad At The World
HEROINE Inglorious (Frontiers) *** ½
On the heels of their 4th album We Will Ride, Inglorious is back already with a covers album. Heroine is a tribute to outstanding female rockers who have influenced this British band vocally and/or musically. Inglorious works their hard rock mojo on pop songs by Whitney Houston, Avril Lavigne and Christina Aguilera, then focus their sights on classic rock from Tina Turner, Heart and Joan Jett. Heroine showcases the musical versatility of the band to be sure, but an entire record of cover songs always leaves me a tad queasy.
Formed in 2014 the band is fronted by singer Nathan James, who made his bones singing for Trans Siberian Orchestra and former Scorpions guitarist Uli Jon Roth. You’ll recognize most if not all of the songs they cover on Heroine, and it’s a testament to James’s vocal skill that he can sing these songs without sounding like a pale imitation of the initial female artists, that he has the range to match and reinterpret the tunes. Of course Inglorious is a 5 man hard rock band including the guitar duo of Danny Dela Cruz and Dan Stevens, plus the rhythm section of Phil Beaver and Vinnie Colla. Theirs is a riff-centric energy, powerful and heavy without being obnoxious, and while some of the song choices look odd on paper dammit, they work. Whitney Houston’s Queen Of The Night? Oh come ON- but it’s a hefty reinterpretation, strong enough to open the record.
Other songs Inglorious tackles on Heroine play more directly and obviously into their wheelhouse, like Heart’s Barracuda, Bring Me To Life (Evanesence), I Hate Myself For Loving You (Joan Jett) and Halestorm’s I Am The Fire. The real fun on a disc like this, though, is when the band takes on more unexpected pop fare like the aforementioned Whitney Houston tune, or Avril Lavigne’s I’m With You and bring them to life without making you think “Jeez, they really shouldn’t have done that.”
All in all I’d say Heroine is quite well done, and kudos to the band for coming up with such a unique concept as well as giving their fans more new music just 7 months after their last album of original material. Inglorious are a talented and ambitious band, worth keeping our eye on. www.inglorious.com
KEY CUTS: Queen Of The Night (Whitney Houston Cover), I Hate Myself For Loving You (Joan Jett Cover), Nutbush City Limits (Tina Turner cover)
THE LEGEND OF ROBIN HOOD Chris de Burgh (Justin Time Records) ***
I have yet to forgive Chris de Burgh for The Lady In Red and may never do so. It’s with no small amount of trepidation that I approach any of his stuff, but The Legend Of Robin Hood is delightful. Combining pop song craft with medieval themes, specifically the well known tale of Robin Hood, may just be the crowning achievement of Chris’s career. This is an evocative album, certainly welcome in these troubled times.
The idea for this disc (his 27th) sprang from de Burgh’s involvement in “Robin Hood”, a stage musical to be produced later this year, where he was invited to contribute storylines and melodies. “Since I was writing songs for this” Chris explains, “I thought why not expand the story and put out an album too?” He learned a great deal on how to do just that with his 2010 record Moonfleet, where he crafted a musical interpretation of an already existing story. “I learned a great deal” he says of that process, “particularly how to set out a story in sequence. In my story Robin Hood is not a hero, but circumstances and injustice to others turned him in to the hero that is now known all over the world. “
The twist with Chris de Burgh’s The Legend of Robin Hood is that he’s telling his version of the legend as if it were many years after Robin’s death, and in a candle lit tavern where a small audience has gathered to hear it conveyed by a Storyteller and enacted by his musicians, actors and singers. This is his de Burgh’s 10th album to be produced by Chris Porter, and as such it’s an aural extravaganza played by seasoned musicians across a myriad of musical styles; Medieval, nursery rhyme, Celtic-infused pop to rock, classical and choral.
I imagine the appeal of The Legend Of Robin Hood will be quite narrow, maybe too esoteric for a listening public that just loves to fit their music into narrow, well defined categories. But in taking on such a well known legend and transforming it into a smartly constructed musical tale Chris de Burgh guarantees a certain amount of recognition. Robin Hood will connect with those already fond of the dramatic stage arts, but I like it for the storytelling itself and the breadth of musical styles employed. It’s not the kind of record you’ll put on every day, but there will be times when you find it to be exceptional company. www.chrisdeburgh.net
KEY CUTS: Break The Law, The Wedding Feast, Speech To The Outlaws
TELL TALE HEART Avey Grouws Band (Navy House Records) *****
It’s the second time out for these rockers from Davenport Iowa (birthplace of The Kiss Army) and it’s impressive. Tell Tale Heart is full of grit and angst through an array of blues-based musical styles. This is rip-roaring rock & roll.
The band is Jeni Grouws on vocals, Chris Avey on guitar, Bryan West on drums, Randy Leasman on bass, and Nick Vasquez on keyboards. Tell Tale Heart is a rowdy record as it veers wildly from knuckle dragging barroom rawk to the distinctly Pink Floyd/ David Gilmour vibe of the instrumental Mariana. When Jeni leans back and roars she sings with a sass and power you’ll take to immediately, and she’s equally engaging when she pulls it down for a mid-tempo acoustic ballad like Daylight. Avey’s guitar playing is jaw-dropping; he’ll make the hair on your arms stand up repeatedly. The other guys know who the stars of the show are and serve up solid support to make the whole far greater than the sum of the parts. Throughout these songs you’ll hear and feel blues, classic rock, country, R&B, funk introspective ballads, and unbridled rock ‘n’ roll.
These 10 songs were composed by Avey and Grouws during the pandemic, with many of the lyrics responding directly to the political and social turmoil of last year. Tell Tale Heart was produced by Grammy winning engineer/ producer Casey Wasner, known for working on Keb’ Mo’ and Taj Mahal’s recent joint record as well as playing rhythm guitar for Robben Ford. “After spending two weeks straight with the Avey Grouws Band, I learned a couple of things” Chris says. “The first week I learned that this band kicks ass. In the second week I didn’t want our session to end. The hang and the music were infectious.”
The Zeppelinesque opening track, Love Raining Down, sets the mood for the rest of the album. “There was a lot of anger, especially on social media” Jeni says of 2020. “And then one day during a huge storm I thought man, wouldn’t it be great if love was raining down? A whole bunch of love hitting everybody?” Tell Tale Heart is a genuinely thrilling disc you need to hear. “Maybe the most important thing to understand about our band is that we are a mix of all of our Middle America backgrounds and experiences” Grouws says. “That includes blues, folk, Americana, rock. We take what we have learned from those masters and make the music that feels the most authentic to us.” www.aveygrouwsband.com
KEY CUTS: Love Raining Down, Mariana, Bad Bad Year, Tell Tale Heart
COCKED & LOADED LIVE LA Guns (Frontiers) ***
This is a live show by what many consider to be the closest to the classic lineup of the band. While they had just started working on a new studio album last November (due out this November), the group decided to play a live show at Fremont Country Club in Vegas and record a live version of their beloved 2nd album, released in ’89. It’s an energetic show, and this is greasy, tattooed Sunset Strip rock & roll in all its glory.
Cocked & Loaded Live was streamed live at the time, but those of us that missed it now have the album. LA Guns- well this version at least- is Phil Lewis, Tracii Guns, Ace Von Johnson, Johnny Martin and Ace Frehley’s old drummer Scotty Coogan. When the original Cocked & Loaded came out in 1989 it was a weird, depraved, special high velocity time for rock & roll, and LA Guns capture that spirit and feeling well in this hour long show. There’s a cool swagger to the playing, a real attitude that seems all too rare in the present day, so kudos to the band for bringing it back on this rare night. This is not all about the past, however; during the performance they also included Speed from 2017’s The Missing Peace.
Some may want to write LA Guns off as a poor man’s Guns N Roses- I know I did back in the day- but what Cocked & Loaded Live shows, particularly if you’re unfamiliar with the band’s catalog, is that these guys are capable of bringing the house down if the spirit moves them to do so. Though this is a live album there isn’t much for audience noise; maybe that’s a production decision, or it’s a small venue, or Covid restrictions at the time meant only a small crowd could be present… but I find with live rock records, the energy exchange between band and audience can be crucial to the success of the night.
Cocked & Loaded Live isn’t perfect- the best live albums never are- but as a celebration of an album from a time when rock & roll had real teeth this will do quite nicely. WWW.LAGUNSMUSIC.COM
KEY CUTS: Slap In The Face, Malaria, Speed