GIGATON Pearl Jam (Monkeywrench/ Republic) ****
This makes album #11 for these Seattleites. Surprising in its varied textures, Gigaton is a dynamic record. Well- maybe that’s not so surprising after all.
Gigaton is Pearl Jam’s first album in 7 years, since 2013’s Lightning Bolt. In Rolling Stone Kory Grow called it “an inspiring example of grown-up grunge”, and maybe that’s the best way to get at it. 29 years after their debut, how sad would it be if Pearl Jam were still trying to be angry young men? Eddie Vedder is still one of the best singers in rock & roll and I love the way the group flexes muscle on Superblood Wolfmoon, one of the first singles, but they don’t keep the needle pinned for the whole album. I’m curious that a great drummer like Matt Cameron would opt for drum programming on 3 tracks (Dance Of The Clairvoyants being one of them) but it’s changeups like that which make this the most engaging listen since Vs. or Vitalogy in the 90’s- for me at least. There’s a sense of experimentation and pushing of boundaries here that I’m really digging.
Produced by the band along with Josh Evans (who also engineered and helped mix the album), Gigaton was recorded mostly in Seattle. If you want straight up rockers, the opening track Whoever Said fits the bill. PJ takes an effective stab at psychedelia with Quick Escape. Perhaps the most delightful song is the ballad River Cross, a lament that includes a pump organ played by Eddie Vedder. It’s one of those songs that draws you in and envelopes you, with lyrics that sound like they came from a guy in his fifties.
Like any of the 11 Pearl Jam records I own (including a documentary soundtrack and a live set), it’s going to take awhile to get inside Gigaton and feel truly familiar and comfortable with it. Alex Lifeson once said, when talking about Rush albums, that the ones that take the most effort to get inside of are the ones that tend to stick with you. There is some truth to that, and that is the case with Pearl Jam for me. From the few spins I’ve taken through Gigaton already, it feels like time well spent.
KEY CUTS: Dance of The Clairvoyants, Who Ever Said, River Cross
HOWLING AT THE MOON Dani Wilde (Vizztone) ****+
The music biz started with singles, went to albums, and now it looks like we’re moving back again. Howling At The Moon is the new single for this British blues Award winner. A delicate, passionate mid-tempo song, it’s makes good use of Dani’s impressive range.
Howling At The Moon is very personal, about a dark time in Wilde’s life. She says she was “struggling to see the light at the end of the tunnel, having had my heart broken and stamped on. I was so lost back then but now I can look back and see that I’m a stronger and happier person for having lived through that.”
It’s a bluesy, mostly acoustic and quite dramatic mid-tempo ballad, borrowing from her British and American influences. “I was listening to British artists Paul Weller and 80’s pop/ soul singer Sam Brown who inspired my arrangement and vocals” she notes, “as well as taking guitar influences from my American blues heroes Albert Collins and Sean Costello.” She signed with Vizztone in 2017 to release the live-in-the-studio album Live At Brighton Road (a stunner) and, with this new single, adds to and fortifies what will surely be an impressive legacy before she’s finished. Well done, Dani.
SHE-ZEE-ZEE (EASY ON MY EYES) The Bacon Brothers (independent) *****
I don’t usually review singles, yet I made an exception for Dani Wilde. When I was sent a link for the video for this song, I had no intention of watching the whole thing, merely taking in the first verse just to be able to say I’d checked it out. Turns out the new song from The Bacon Brothers (Kevin and Michael) is buoyant, cheerful, and the most uplifting pop song I’ve heard in quite some time- like watching a sunset on a beautiful day; good medicine in this time of certifiable weirdness.
Kevin says “I wrote the song months ago so it’s really a coincidence that the subject of the video is so timely right now while everyone is isolated and away from loved ones.” Michael notes that “ironically, the recording side of the music business has been moving toward stay-at-home recording studios, isolated individual performances and massive file sharing since way before the crisis. I’m so glad we banked a bunch of new music like She-Zee-Zee and are ready to do more from our little rabbit hutch studios.”
Although Kevin Bacon is a noteworthy actor, he’s been making music with his brother Michael since they were boys. Since becoming a working band in 1995 they’ve put out 9 records, so this isn’t a vanity project, not a case of “actor-boy wants to play musician”, The Bacon Brothers are the real deal. Some might find it hard to get past the actor thing, but give Shee-Zee-Zee a spin- I really think you’ll enjoy it. They’re currently putting the finishing touches on the next album to coincide with the summer tour (with Covid-19’s permission of course), and I’m really looking forward to hearing what else they’re up to.
WILD AND FREE Albert Castiglia (Gulf Coast) *****
This is the new live record from Castiglia and it’s a wild, hairy beast. Wild And Free sounds like biker blues; as intense and energetic as it gets.
Recorded live at The Funky Biscuit in Boca Raton, Florida this is a raw and rockin’ performance for the ages- almost metal in execution but most assuredly the muscular sort of blues we’ve come to expect from Albert, full of wicked slide guitar. The energy exchange between Castiglia, his band and the audience is palpable, Wild And Free is definitely one of those ‘I wish I was there’ kind of live records, a musical brawl. Joining him on stage are Mike Zito, John Ginty and Lewis Stevens, for some unbridled guitar virtuosity and raw power that needs to be heard and felt to be believed.
The Miami-raised Castiglia served an apprenticeship while backing the legendary Junior Wells, later going on to work with singer Sandra Hall and others before striking out on his own. That solo career has given us nine critically acclaimed albums loaded with exceptional guitar playing and rugged, searing vocals. Nothing Albert does is half-assed; if he believes in a song he pours everything he has into it, or it doesn’t get done. When you throw Wild And Free into your CD player you’re getting everything Albert has to give, and you can feel it.
For last year’s Masterpiece Albert was nominated for “Blues Rock Album Of The Year” and “Blues Rock Artist”, and no doubt this show here is from the tour to promote that record. Wild And Free is exactly the kind of live album a title like that suggests it would be. Bluesabout.com calls him “one of those mid-tier artists that is just one album away from breaking big and becoming a household word in the blues world” and who knows? This just might be the record that does it for him- I know I’m enjoying it a whole bunch.
KEY CUTS: Get Your Ass In The Van, Too Much Seconal, I Been Up All Night
SLAVES OF TIME Stallion (High Roller Records) *** ½
It’s the sixth release (including 2 EP’s) for this German metal outfit since they formed in 2013. Taking the traditional blue collar do-it-yourself approach has led them to this point, with Slaves Of Time being their most fully realized effort yet.
Slaves Of Time is one of those records with a foot in two different worlds; one minute you’re thinking they’re a speed metal outfit then the next they’re riffing on 80’s style sleaze metal a la Ratt. To be honest, if this was straight up speed metal front to back it would have worn me out before the end of the record. Then of course, you have a song like Allln that includes both. A band that doesn’t stay in the same gear throughout is bound to attract and keep more fans interested.
Lyrically speaking Slaves Of Time is a serious affair. Songs like No Mercy, Brain Dead and Merchants Of Fear address the political and social crises that are gripping the world. The band feels that No Mercy might be their strongest rallying cry to date against society’s unworthy swing to the right, while Brain Dead depicts what 24/7 exposure to media can do to your psyche.
I like what’s going on here stylistically, but the production values could’ve been stronger. The constant echo on Pauly’s vocals is distracting, making Slaves Of Time sound like an old Metallica album more often than not. I know a lot of people worship those guys but I came along around the Justice and Black albums, so the earlier stuff doesn’t really float my canoe… but I digress. Rock solid musicianship from the band and an impressive range from vocalist Pauly (that’s how he’s listed on the info sheet) make Slaves Of Time a ball-buster of an album.
KEY CUTS: Die With Me, Waking The Demons, Allln
LIVE Justin Saladino Band (Bros. Record Company) *****
A delicious new offering here from Montreal’s Justin Saladino. Live could’ve easily been called “The Best Of Both Worlds”- it’s live in a studio with an intimate audience. It gives the band more control over the sound and, frankly, the results speak for themselves.
When asked why they chose to go this route, Justin said “we don’t have the luxury of using the same audio/ technical team on every show, so the logistics of recording a few nights and blending them didn’t make sense. Piccolo Studio is massive and allowed us both a great live-show experience and enough control over the recording to guarantee good sound quality.” It’s true, a great sounding live record is a tricky affair; if you take benchmark live albums like Kiss’s first Alive disc or Frampton Comes Alive from the mid 70’s, as good as they sound they were largely recreated in the studio.
For Live, The Justin Saladino Band picked songs that are some of their favorites to perform live, and they’re quite happy with the results- as they should be. As a treat for the fans they added the Tom Petty song You Don’t Know How it Feels. “It’s a tune with a feel that seamlessly fits in with our set of originals” Justin says. “In addition I think we add some extra flavors to the mix.”
I suppose you could call The Justin Saladino Band a blues band in the same way that The Allmans were, but in both cases the description is restrictive. Though the band is from Montreal Live has all kinds of southern flavors, and the musicianship is soulful throughout. Even above that this is, technically, a terrific sounding album that combines studio control with the spontaneity of a live performance and a terrific bunch of songs as the starting point. Irish Bordello could be an outlaw country song, Put The Hammer Down has some sweet finger picking and Take What You Need, the opening cut, has a Stones feel to it. Live just might be a perfect album in every way.
KEY CUTS: Put The Hammer Down, Irish Bordello, You Don’t Know How It Feels
THE DARK DELIGHT Dynazty (AFM) ****
What is it with Northern European bands and spectacular metal albums; is there something in their beer? Here is another Swedish rock band that kicks serious and major ass. According to their website The Dark Delight is Dynazty’s 7th album and singer Nils Molin says “(it’s) the complete vision of what the band has always wanted to be.”
In many ways this is traditional heavy metal, but with progressive elements mixed in. There’s the lift of a basic hard rock attack but on the whole fairly melodic with occasional manic outbursts and quite often thrilling musicianship. When they get into a high speed grinder like Apex it just feels really… fucking… good. Molin has a great voice, in the same league as Foreigner’s Lou Gramm, and the band is so tight it’s ridiculous. No navel-gazing mopes here, kids… when Dynazty decides to put the metal down your only choice is to strap in and hold on for the ride.
For music as hard as The Dark Delight how melodic it is too may come as a surprise. The guys in this band have been around; guitarist Mikael Laver has played with Lindemann and Joe Lynn Turner and guitarist Love Magnusson and drummer George Harnsten Egg frequently tour with JLT and Dee Snider. Bassist Jonathan Olsson has been known to join forces with Lindemann and Pain. When they’re out playing with these other guys, the band has obviously kept their ears and eyes open, bringing back what they’ve learned to home base.
What bands like Dynazty seem to get and why I’m enjoying them so much is their keen sense of high drama. Listening to a record like The Dark Delight is an almost Shakespearean experience. The playing from each musician (the singer included) is powerful and confident, and you’ll find that rubs off on you too. Over the years I’ve been fairly ignorant of the European metal scene but decided to change that in 2020 thanks to some generous promo contacts. All of what I’ve just said really boils down to one thing; The Dark Delight is one hell of a rock & roll album, and I’d put Dynazty up against anybody, anytime.
KEY CUTS: Paradise of The Architect, The Dark Delight, Apex
YOU AND YOUR FRIENDS Peach Pit (Columbia Records) ***
Spacey, vaguely distorted indie pop music is what we get from Peach Pit. Formed in Vancouver in 2016, You And Your Friends is their 2nd full length album. Smooth, sardonic and vaguely troubling, what the band itself describes as “chewed bubblegum pop” might just be the left field confection you’re missing.
Georgia Strait, the once counter culture newspaper from Vancouver, says “Peach Pit display a knack for distilling ennui, angst and disappointment into wistful, melodic indie pop”, and that’s as accurate a description as you’re going to get. The band includes singer Neil Smith and high school pal Chris Vanderkooy, who decided to collaborate on a musical project. Then they were joined by Peter Wilton and Mikey Pascuzzi on bass and drums, and together they’ve created something of a phenomenon. The group quickly developed a devoted local fan base through their energetic live shows, with quirky online posts and Ned Flanders-ish uniforms garnering international attention.
You And Your Friends is likeable on a bunch of different levels. Smith’s lush, multi-tracked vocals get your attention and put you at ease right away as he tells dark tales about backstabbing best friends and dying end-of-summer romances, according to their Facebook page. The combination of a light musical touch and dark emotional content make for a curious listen, an enjoyable creative sleight of hand.
Where Friends comes up short for me is the production, but that’s symptomatic of the genre, more or less… a little distortion to make it sound trashy and for somebody that’s not a grumpy old man (unlike me), that may be a part of the charm. Melodically lighter than air songs devoid of macho posing and truly engaging lyrics make Peach Pit’s 2nd album worth checking out… maybe hide the sharp objects first?
KEY CUTS: Puppy Grin, Feeling Low, Your Teeth
THE FUNK, THE SOUL & THE HOLY GROOVE Deltaphonic (independent) ****+
This, the Deltaphonics’ 3rd record, blends New Orleans funk, soul and country blues influenced rock & roll into a delicious, gritty sound. Want to know what it sounds like? Read the album title- now read it again. There you go.
The band has a great feel that really does live up to that title. I also gotta tip my Dog River baseball hat to a band that can paraphrase one of my favorite authors. For the irresistibly funky single Liar, which has been out about a month, they echo Hunter S. Thompson with the line (it’s) a cruel and shallow money trench… (where) thieves and pimps run free. They’re talking about the music business of course, and they’re absolutely right. They’re the kind of band that lives the songs they sing and yet they have a good sense of humor about their travails too… who doesn’t enjoy that?
I suppose the thing that grabs me most about The Funk, The Soul & The Holy Groove is its genuine heart. The playing is superb but not overly mannered, and you never once get the impression that the band is pretending or trying to be somebody that they’re not. Maybe that’s a New Orleans honesty but whatever it is you’ll think “this is who these guys really are”. No shuckin’ and jivin’ going on here, no sir.
I enjoy the reality of these songs… when you listen to a track like New Mexican Rockstar you can actually picture the story happening. The funk, the soul, the old timey rock & roll flourishes throughout the album along with the occasional crank-it-up-to-11 guitar solo makes this album a bunch of fun to listen to. Musically it’s sort of like The Eagles meet Atlanta Rhythm Section with Dr. John sitting in. Pretty damn cool.
KEY CUTS: See Red, Liar, Starlit
CHURCH HOUSE BLUES Crystal Shawanda (True North) *****+
Really good blues should be powerful, moving, passionate, soul stirring- and that’s just what Crystal Shawanda’s new album is. Church House Blues finds her co-writing 7 of these 10 tracks. Want to know who she is? Listen to this (out April 17th) and find out.
While Church House is Crystal’s 4th blues album in a row, it’s not where she started out professionally. Signed to RCA in 2007, she was a success right out of the box as a country performer. While she saw the record deal as a chance she couldn’t pass up, her heart wasn’t truly in that music. “The whole time I was singing Patsy Cline on stage, I was singing Etta James at home” she says. Despite that initial country success this Canadian singer, now a Nashville resident, knew her heart lay elsewhere. “I veered towards the blues because that’s the music I love to sing” Crystal notes. “It feels so natural, the music I was meant to sing. It’s a beautiful release, like letting a bird out of a cage. This is what I’m supposed to do- this is how I fly.”
Church House Blues was produced by her husband, collaborator and co-writer DeWayne Strobel. It’s a smart sounding recording, the sound of somebody being comfortable in her own skin. From upbeat romps to bittersweet ballads, she covers it all and there’s nary a false note to be heard anywhere. JD Nash of American Blues Scene says “Not only does Shawanda capture Koko Taylor’s Southside growl, but after a brief slowdown for breath, morphs into a primal scream that would grab Janis Joplin by the short hairs.” Know what? He ain’t lyin’.
Church House Blues is the case of a skilled, powerful singer finding the right songs and effortlessly laying waste to any that might fancy themselves as ‘competition’. The way she turns The Tragically Hip’s New Orleans Is Sinking into a swampy blues stomp is a revelation. For pure, unadulterated blues, this is as good as it gets. Koko Taylor, Etta James, Crystal Shawanda… her name belongs beside theirs, she’s that good.
KEY CUTS: Evil Memory, Bigger Than The Blues, New Orleans Is Sinking
TRYIN’ TO GET TO YOU The Nighthawks (Ellersoul Records) ****
If Wikipedia is to believed, I make this to be The Nighthawks’ 30th album overall. Tryin’ To Get to You finds this seminal American roots music band traveling that blues highway once again, and we’re invited along for the ride.
On New Year’s Eve 2021, The Nighthawks will celebrate their 50th year as a band. Even though singer/ harmonica player Mark Wenner is the sole original member from the band’s 1972 formation the feeling, the soul and the sound of the band has remained consistent over the years. Tryin’ To Get To You showcases the breadth of the band’s explorations into all branches of roots music. It was produced with energy and swing by David Earl with the band, and recorded at Severn Sound Studio in Annapolis, Maryland. The 13 tracks include some scintillating covers plus a pair of originals each from Dan Hovey (guitars, vocals) and drummer Mark Stutso in combination with Pittsburgh flash Norman Nardini.
Tryin’ To Get to You is the sound of a band very much in touch with their long history. If you threw on any album from their career, regardless of era and liked it, you’d probably enjoy the rest of them. The Nighthawks 2020 features 2 new members in guitarist Dan Hovey, and bassist Paul Pisciotta who in tandem with drummer Mark Stutso makes a swingin’ and formidable rhythm section. They’re comfortable in their own shoes, no trying to be ‘hip with the kids’ anywhere on the new album; just great playing.
Though the band has been putting out records since 1974, Tryin’ To Get To You is only my 4th Nighthawks album, all of which I like a great deal. Rightly celebrated for their excursions into the great American songbook of blues, roots and early rock ‘n’ roll this new chapter finds them still at the top of their game, even after all those years. Hallelujah!
KEY CUTS: Chairman Of The Board, Trying To Get To You, I Know Your Wig Is Gone