John The Rock Doctor’s album reviews for May 2nd, 2016

IV Santana (i-tunes purchase)This marks the first time Santana’s classic line-up has recorded in 45 years!  Getting back together after such a long layoff- although they’ve all been playing elsewhere- would be problematic for many, but not these guys.  Santana’s IV can stand proudly along side classic sets like Abraxas which, to my ears, is one of the finest albums ever made.Back together again are Carlos Santana, Gregg Rolie, Neal Schon, Mike Carabello and Michael Shrieve, with valuable assists coming from current Santana percussionist Karl Perazzo and bassist Benny Rietveld.  As if they needed the help, Ronald Isley throws down some great vocals on a couple of cuts but really, these guys have it covered.IV hit me exactly as I hoped it would- brilliant musicianship with a spirituality echoed by those older records, and supple Latin grooves that are just so… sexy.  16 cuts on this disc, and a few lengthy instrumentals peppered throughout, as one would expect from Santana.  I can imagine this particular group of musicians getting together for that first exploratory jam and saying “Let’s just play and see how it feels, then we’ll decide where to go from there.”  If it felt even half as good as this album sounds, they must’ve been in heaven.Like any Santana album from the classic era up ‘til now, IV is about three things; transcendent grooves, spirituality and superior musicianship. This disc has so much groove and soul coming at you from every direction, it is so powerful that it’s incredibly easy to find yourself getting carried away.  Even the instrumentals speak to you, grabbing your heart for a good squeeze.We’re not halfway through 2016 yet, and there are already lots of candidates for my best album of the year come Christmas- and you’d better believe Santana’s IV is one of ‘em.ESSENTIALS:  Yambu, Love Makes The World Go Round (with Ronald Isley), Blues MagicGUILTY BY DESIGN Jaded Heart (Massacre)Guilty is the 12th studio album for this German/ Swedish metal powerhouse.  Sounding not unlike modern day Iron Maiden, I can’t think of anything about this set that I don’t like- too bad you don’t get to hear it in North America until June 10th!  JIn their 23 years of existence Jaded Heart has seen a few musicians come and go, but this particular line-up plays with precision and balls.  Johan Fahlberg is one of the best hard rock vocalists I’ve heard in a long time, and the guitar tandem of Peter Ostros and Masahiro Eto is brutally majestic, spewing syncopated riffs and harmonic leads ‘til the cows come home. Much of what I hear of European metal these days comes across as either re-heated 80’s hair metal or ridiculously pretentious twaddle, but Jaded Heart charts a course between the two that results in melodic rock that is unmistakably metal with some very sharp edges.With summer cruising weather becoming more frequent, having an album like Guilty By Design to blast when you’re flying down the highway becomes crucial.  I haven’t as yet taken the time to delve into the lyrical themes being presented here, but this is one of those albums that makes you want to throw the horns and beat the nearest hard surface into submission.  This is an energetic gathering of tunes, mixing physical brutality with nuance and extremely tasty playing- and, as Paul Stanley famously once asked, “Isn’t that what rock & roll is all about?”ESSENTIALS:  So Help Me God, Rescue Me, Torn And Scarred UNCANNY VALLEY BRUTUS BEGINS (Last Tango/ Independent)This is a solo project for Ricardo Temporao, a Portuguese/Canadian music writer and director.  It sounds like an 80’s flashback, and I mean that in the best possible way.Citing a diverse set of influences that include Leonard Cohen, Tame Impala, Shuggie Otis and T. Rex, Temporao has managed to craft a pop record that straddles the decades from the 80’s onwards.  As the bio I received with this says, “the buttons, knobs and wires twist and bleed into something almost human.  Where the copper pierces the flesh is where Brutus Begins.”  Okay, maybe that’s a tad dramatic, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t truth in what they say.  The melodies are simple and catchy, repetitive, almost hypnotic, and the machinery of the songs is pleasing to the ears.  Given that I usually despise ‘machine-made’ music, preferring instead instruments played directly by real, sweaty humans, I’m surprised at how enjoyable this disc is.Now Magazine praises this set by saying “This guy is the full meal deal; catchy hooks, smart ‘n’ sensitive lyrics… and straight up pop nuggets that don’t pander to the lowest common denominator”, which at least partially explains why an old fart like me is enjoying the sort of music I’m usually quick to dismiss.  Uncanny Valley, for some voodoo reason, put me at ease and drew me in right away.  Listening to this album is charming in its melodic simplicity, with vulnerable lyrics that give you the sense that you’re being allowed into Ricardo’s emotional inner circle.I find that music often serves a very specific purpose.  There are records that are great for blasting down the highway on a sunny afternoon with the windows down, others make you want to dance, and still others (like any James Taylor for me) makes you want to hang out with the few real close friends you have to talk about important stuff.  My impression is that Uncanny Valley is best listened to alone, when you’re thinking about things you’ve been and are going through, and changes to come.  Its emotional openness and melodic friendliness should not be underestimated.ESSENTIALS:  Never fade, Love & War, Mind Is A GunRIDE THE ONE Paul Reddick (Stony Plain)This is the 4th solo record for the poet laureate of the Canadian blues scene.  “Ensuring the long-term health of the blues in Canada has become a passion for Paul Reddick, and his motivation behind the creation of the Cobalt Prize” notes FYI Music News.  As an artist, Reddick has delivered an exciting and vital record, and it’s damn tough to put Ride The One down to listen to something else.Of the Cobalt Prize, Paul says its purpose is “to encourage people to write blues songs- songs that expand, explore and refresh the blues tradition”, and that’s exactly what his new album does. Deep rhythm, intense singing and harp playing combine with his distinctive blues poetry.  As Paul himself notes, “Blues is a beautiful landscape” and, with the help of guests like Monkeyjunk’s Steve Marriner on guitar, keys and backing vocals and production by Colin Cripps (Blue Rodeo), he’s painted himself a rather vivacious canvas here.Ride The One comes across at times like a straight up rock record, but that really just demonstrates that rock and the blues are kissing cousins.  As for broadening the expectations and audience for the blues, Reddick notes that “Bob Dylan has always been a master at that, and if there’s one song I wish I could have written, it would probably be Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.”The title of this disc refers to the hypnotic grooves Reddick explores on Ride The One and while the disc is essentially a blues experience- and a powerful one at that- it goes deeper and reaches farther. Mojo Magazine is right to praise Paul’s “wayward brilliance”- this isn’t a record that gives up all its secrets at once, the coy minx… it sounds great from the first spin, and draws you in deeper with each pass.  Now please excuse my while I give it another listen.ESSENTIALS:  Mourning Dove, Living In Another World, Celebrate THE HAPPIEST MAN IN THE WORLD Eric Bibb & North Country Far with Danny Thompson (Stony Plain)Any time there’s a new Eric Bibb album is cause for celebration but with The Happiest Man, it’s quite possible that Eric has outdone himself.  As the kids say, this one gets you right in the feels.Due out May 6thThe Happiest Man In The World is gentle, laid back, and musically excellent.  It’s a soulful set of songs that feels just right on the back porch or in the front parlour, with the kind of gentle give and take that can only come from musicians that have known each other for a long time and, in the liner notes Eric explains how that came to be- I’ll let you pick up a copy of the CD and read that for yourself.Each new Eric Bibb album is something of a surprise but never unexpected, if that makes  sense.  His last set, a collection with legendary French harp player JJ Milteau was Lead Belly’s Gold, recorded at a famous Parisian jazz club (The Sunset) along with 5 studio cuts, but these two albums don’t feel very far apart, not as if they were done by different guys.  With each new Eric Bibb disc that crosses my path I’ve come to expect a sort of sublime musical excellence, and The Happiest Man In The World does not disappoint.While I’ve been a fan for a few years now, it occurs to me as this disc trundles along in my CD player that I get a very similar vibe from it that I’ve been getting lately from Matt Andersen’s stuff.  Both artists are playful and deep with their lyrics, and when you listen to the latest disc from either one (Matt’s record is Honest Man), you find yourself slowly stopping whatever you’re doing to just tune in and listen.I know I’ve said previously that “talking about music is like dancing about architecture”, and I wish I knew who said it first, but the phrase really applies here.  I could try to explain and dig into my trunk of twenty dollar words to try and tell you just how very excellent The Happiest Man In The World Is, but you’ll either just have to take my word for it, or pick up a copy and judge for yourself.  For roots and blues, it just doesn’t get any better than this.ESSENTIALS:  Creole Café, I’ll Farm For You, King Size BedCITIES IN BLUE Danny Marks (Cabbage Tunes)Danny is a Toronto-based bluesman, and this is the soundtrack to my favourite documentary series of all time, Cities In Blue, which plays on HiFi TV.  Each episode concentrates on a different city in the region where the blues began.  Near the end of each show, Danny gets together with a bunch of musicians to jam a tune, and this disc is those songs.  If you’ve seen the show, then you already know you need to have this set.The TV program and this disc take you up and down the blues highway on a road trip 100 years in the making, from New Orleans to Mississippi, Memphis, Chicago, you name it.  These 11 tracks are all Danny Marks originals and, as Mark Rheaume of CBC radio notes, “You’d swear Marks and company were reviving some great old blues tunes that had undeservedly fallen into obscurity” which, I’m sure is the effect that Marks wanted to get across here.Of course, Cities In Blue isn’t just Danny and his guitar as the disc features appearances by Canadian blues musicians Julian Fauth, David Rotundo, The Whitely Brothers (Chris & Ken), Delta Sugar’s Sherie Marshall, Fathead’s BuckyBerger, film composer Jonathan Goldsmith, jazz guitar great Rob Piltch, session Ace Al Cross and bassist Alec Fraser. Lots of talent in the room as the songs come across as relaxed and joyful celebrations of this music that Marks clearly loves.While some might think the blues is ‘downer music’, Cities In Blue argues successfully that it is anything but.  The songs on this disc are a celebration of life and the playing is joyful.  The guys are relaxed and in the groove, and it felt like the album was over far too soon.  From Danny’s relaxed baritone singing voice to his graceful and occasionally gritty guitar work, to the supporting swing of the other musicians involved, this is one of those records that you’ll have to put on ‘repeat’.ESSENTIALS: Land Where The Blues began, Memphis Got Soul, Lights Out BANG ZOOM CRAZY… HELLO Cheap Trick (Big Machine)This is the band’s 17th studio album, their first since 2009’s The Latest and also their first without original drummer Bun E. Carlos, who has been replaced by guitarist Rick Neilsen’s son Daxx.  Like most Cheap Trick records, Bang Zoom is filled to the nuts with catchy pop songs that rock pretty friggin’ hard- it’s also a blast to listen to.I’ve seen Cheap Trick live twice- in early 1976 when they opened for Kiss in Spokane, and just this past April 23rd when they played the River Cree Casino in Edmonton and, despite the 40 year gap, I’d say they are at least as good if not better today.  Singer Robin Zander hasn’t lost a step, and guitarist Rick Neilsen is a truly great hard rock guitarist, and underrated too.  Bassist Tom Petersen locks down the groove effortlessly, and Daxx Neilsen picks up on drums where Bun E. Carlos left off- not sure if it’s because they have similar playing styles (they do), or if Daxx emulates Carlos’s sound to keep the ‘Cheap Trick sound’ intact.Cheap Trick are consummate masters of the catchy rock song and the 2nd single from the album, When I Wake Up Tomorrow, marks their first chart success in something like 28 years.  There’s a gleeful energy to these songs and to the album as a whole- rock generally isn’t this melodic, especially these days.  One thing you can be sure of in a Cheap Trick album is the songs will have plenty of hooks and melodies that stay with you, and that’s how it is with Bang Zoom.  The album is playing yet again as I type this and the phrase that comes to mind as I listen to songs like Sing My Blues Away is “this feels really good”.Ask anyone under 45 or so if they know Cheap Trick and you’ll probably get a blank stare, but it’s clearly their loss.  I will say I haven’t bought every one of their albums, and I found a lot of their 80’s stuff kind of slick (who didn’t fall into that trap?), but Cheap Trick is a band that is to be seriously enjoyed and Bang Zoom will turn out to be one of the best, if not THE best, rock albums of the year. If you’ve been away from the band for awhile, this is the record that will bring you back.ESSENTIALS:  When I Wake Up Tomorrow, The In Crowd, No Direction Home GRACE & GRIT Meghan Patrick (Warner Music Canada)The debut for this young lady from Bowmanville, Ontario here.  Recorded at a number of studios in Canada and the US, this disc has drive and spit and- well, plenty of grit.Patrick started young, as so many artists seem to. “I was drawn to playing guitar so I could start writing music to go along with the words I was writing” she says, “I wanted to be self-sufficient as a creative artist.”  One of he co-writers on Grace & Grit was Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger, who co-wrote and produced the lascivious single Bow Chicka Wow-Wow, which seems like a deliberate attempt at a ‘big single’ which, no doubt, will succeed.She’s a good singer but the album overall is formulaic modern country, as if she had studied the modern country scene and said to herself “Okay, I need A, B and C in place for this thing to succeed.”  For me, the songs that work are the tracks where she gets personal. “I have to feel connected to the music, especially when I’m playing it live” she notes. “The emotions I write about are real and audiences know when you are being true to yourself.  Performing my own music and forming a bond with my audience is what I do this for, and that’s the most enjoyable thing in the world.”Grace & Grit is a great sounding album, but it’s also a typical sounding one.  The songs are extremely well played and produced, but it sounds just about like every other female country record that’s come out in the last 5 or 10 years.   It’s a good solid album and a decent debut, but hardly special.ESSENTIALS:  Bow Chicka Wow-Wow, Thanks To You DELTA PINES Ivor S.K. (Independent)This 5 song EP is the first release for this New Orleans based Australian bluesman.  Just voice and acoustic guitar, it is a stark and accurate depiction of the primal, haunting blues songs that create a tangible atmosphere.Ivor’s raspy singing voice is reminiscent of Dr. John and he’s a very tasty guitar player- simple, melodic and straightforward.  Delta Pines is one of the deepest blues experiences that has come along in some time, and Ivor S.K. plays and sings with a maturity, skill and understanding that belies his 25 years, and is a real pleasure to listen to.  Casual and easy, this is generally a good natured album that makes for fine company and, as a musician, S.K. (stands for Simpson Kennedy) is supple and easy on the instrument, and the spaciousness allowed by the simplicity of production is wonderfully intimate.Not much else I can say about Delta Pines, really.  If you enjoy acoustic blues and good playing, this disc has plenty to say that you’ll want to hear. I flat out love this.ESSENTIALS:  Help Poor Me, Pelican (instrumental), Delta Pines


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