WHOOSH! Deep Purple (Edel/ Ear Music) ****
Deep Purple’s new album is their 3rd in a row with producer Bob Ezrin (Alice Cooper, Kiss, Pink Floyd), after 2013’s Now What?! and 2017’s Infinite. Whatever magic they’ve found together still works- Whoosh!, recorded at Ezrin’s studio in Nashville, finds the band relaxed, expressive, having fun and stretching out with satisfying results.
Though the days of big anthems are gone for The Purps Whoosh finds the band making relevant and exciting music on a different level, becoming more precise and interesting with each Ezrin-helmed disc. This isn’t Machine Head Deep Purple– how tragic it would be if they were- though 3 band members from those glory days (Gillan, Glover, Paice) are in the lineup today. The songs are varied in terms of feel and energy and yet the record hangs together quite nicely as a whole. Keyboard player Don Airey, replacing Jon Lord in 2002, plays some spirited boogie woogie piano on What The What and the moody Man Alive finds singer Ian Gillan contemplating the transient nature of man’s existence- a far cry, lyrically, from Lazy or Speed King.
I’ve enjoyed guitarist Steve Morse since he joined the band for 1996’s Purpendicular (he’s been in the band longer than Blackmore ever was), and with Whoosh he raises his game yet again. Drummer Ian Paice is the only original band member from ‘68, and this disc is another example of why he’s been my favorite rock drummer for decades over Neil Peart and John Bonham… his feel is impeccable, and he swings like a cross between Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. Roger Glover is still a great bass player (I wanted to be him as a teenager, until I got my first drum kit) and singer Ian Gillan may have lost some of the high notes over the years, but he’s still in fine voice and songs like the aforementioned Man Alive and the politically charged No Need To Shout see him writing some of his best lyrics to date.
Tie all that together with a remake of the instrumental And The Address which opened Deep Purple’s very first album Shades Of Deep Purple, and you have a record that delights and surprises all the way through. Whoosh is the sound of a band confident in their abilities and quite comfortable in their own skin- I for one am loving it.
KEY CUTS: Man Alive, Nothing At All, What The What
AN AMERICAN CLASSIC Jeannie Seely (Curb) *** ½
Ms. Seely is country music royalty, and when I talk about preferring ‘classic country’, this record is the kind of music I’m talking about. An American Classic is a collection of songs written by folks like Dottie West, Hank Cochran, Sammy Cahn and Jeannie, proving she is still a force to be reckoned with.
Jeannie Seely has been a member of The Grand Old Opry for 52 years now and has enjoyed a career in country music going back six decades. She grew up with a love of the country music she sang as a child then, at 21, she moved to Los Angeles to make a go of it in the biz. Landing a job at a bank, she left after a year to take a secretarial job at a record company. Fellow songwriter Hank Cochran encouraged her to move to Nashville, but she didn’t think she was ready. Encouragement from singer Dottie West, who had recorded one of her songs, Seely changed her mind in 1965. “When I arrived in town, I only had $50 and a Ford Falcon to my name” she remembers. “Within a month though, Porter Wagoner hired me to replace Norma Jean as the female singer for his road show and syndicated TV series.” The rest, as they say, is history.
An American Classic is what the title implies; a classic voice singing classic songs. Duets to note include Not A Dry Eye In The House with Willie Nelson, If You Could Call It That with Steve Wariner and That’s How I Roll with Lorrie Morgan on vocals and Vince Gill on guitar. Along with other famous songwriters’ compositions, several of Jeannie’s songs are included here too. The beauty of An American Classic is the straightforward, simple honesty of the songs. That of course, and Ms. Seely’s voice, which is as iconic as Tammy Wynette’s. The duets have a classic country feel, and when Jeannie’s at the mic you can literally hear and feel the history of country music itself.
Though I’m mostly a rock and blues guy, when I reach for country it’s got to have that emotional honesty that made this music popular in the first place…and that’s exactly what I’m getting from An American Classic.
KEY CUTS: Not A Dry Eye In The House (with Willie Nelson), All Through Crying Over You (with Rhonda Vincent), That’s How I Roll (with Lorrie Morgan & Vince Gill)
THE STORIES WE ARE TOLD Heathcote Hill (311 Music) ***
This is a busy band from New York City, releasing four records in the space of three years prior to this one. The Stories We Are Told mixes folk and Americana with soulful rock & roll elements for a unique and charming listen.
Guitarist Tom Nelson writes the songs and Megan Porcaro Herspring sings them. “Our songs are about actual people we know and what’s bugging them about a world that isn’t as predictable as it used to be” Tom says. “Our heroes are the people we admire who do something because they love it.” That right there is the heart of this album. Of the title song he says “everything we believe is something we were programmed to by those who came before us.” Elegy For Mary Ellen is far more personal; “My aunt Mary Ellen joined the convent as a teenager and taught thousands of Catholic school kids” Nelson remembers. “She was strict, smart, but very funny. I wrote this song the day she died.”
The attraction with The Stories We Are Told goes beyond the music. The stories they tell- the joys, trials and tribulations of the human condition- feel personal and truthful, and it’s like they’re letting us into their space. The disc was produced and mixed by Timothy M. Hatfield (Keith Richards, Steve Earle, Death Cab For Cutie) and has a rustic feel without being hokey. Dave Franklin of Dancing About Architecture calls their music “Sumptuous Americana that ticks boxes relating to melody, infectiousness, ear-wormery and much more.” Skope Magazine’s comments get us closer to the truth when they say their songs “arrive at a time when frothy pop music rules the world. Actual adults, though, will find much to appreciate about Heathcote Hill’s mature and relevant songs.”
The Jayhawks with a hint of The Byrds? A distant cousin to the folk revolution that came out of Laurel Canyon in the late sixties? The best thing to do with The Stories We Are Told is to resist such comparisons, listen to the songs and accept the gifts they offer as is. This is one album that will really grow on you.
KEY CUTS: Second Chances, Everything Slipping Away, Elegy For Mary Ellen
LITTLE MISS HOLLYWOOD Betty Moon (Evolver Music) ***
Another decadent pop/ rock confection here from this LA-based Canadian singer/ songwriter. Little Miss Hollywood, her 10th album, is what I imagine the soft white underbelly of the City Of Angels sounds like- it scares me, and fascinates me too.
Even if the name ‘Betty Moon’ isn’t familiar you’ve likely heard her music in movies as well as on TV shows like Dexter, Californication and The Walking Dead. On Little Miss Hollywood, Moon has an uncanny ability to blend pop sensibilities with rock soundscapes powered by studio and production trickery along with her memorable voice. It’s a pastiche of electronica, rock, funk and indie dance. In the hands of a lesser talent I might find such a mix forced and pretentious and further, this sort of thing isn’t usually my bag, baby… but for some reason this works like gangbusters. She has spent most of 2020 in the studio working on music, completing literally dozens of ideas, ten of which comprise Little Miss Hollywood.
Betty Moon’s work ethic would put most of us to shame, and that’s part of what draws me in. Aside from 10 albums she’s also put up several EP’s and singles. Betty doesn’t wait for success to come to her; she goes out there, grabs it by the boo-boo and greets it on her own terms. She hustles, she make things happen, and that attitude can be felt in every bar and phrase on Little Miss Hollywood. Though mostly a pop record it certainly isn’t a pretty one and while that might turn some people off, I find it exciting.
Little Miss Hollywood is a mix of razor sharp pop elements with rock and funk undercurrents that betray the slowly decaying social fabric of a big city’s nightlife- in this case, Los Angeles. I might be decades past being a part of such a scene but this disc is triggering some heavy flashbacks that scare, depress and thrill me. In the end LMH is a record qith the power to move you and on a day like today, that’s enough.
KEY CUTS: Monsters In My Head, Take Me Downtown, Your Dirty Love
COME ON ANGELS Mighty Joe Castro & The Gravamen (independent) ****
This is the debut release for these Philly rockers. Come On Angels is vintage rock & roll and what the press release calls ‘Ameripolitan rockabilly’, taking us back to a time when music was simpler, the melodies sweeter, and the lyrics deeper.
That this band is so influenced by 50’s rock and roll might be a problem for some, but that’s a big part of Come On Angels’ appeal. Link Wray-style guitar, doghouse bass and some swingin’ beats, Mighty Joe and his guys seem to come from the crossroads where Sun Records and Creation Records meet, a place I didn’t think still existed in this day and age. The songs were mostly written by Castro who, after years of playing guitar in semi-successful alt rock bands, became fed up with the business side of music and turned his focus to his blossoming visual arts career. Then in 2010, his wife bought him an acoustic guitar to play for their newborn daughter, and he started writing songs.
“I had no experience with singing and playing guitar at the same time, so I began teaching myself old rock & roll songs- Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, Bob Dylan, Dion, The Ramones- because the chords are so simple” Joe confesses. “I fell back in love with playing music again and, when I realized I could sing, that opened up a whole new world for me. My taste in music started changing and I got really into songwriters like Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits (and) Nick Cave. I started to believe I could front my own band.”
Come On Angels is a cross between Stray Cats and Chris Isaak, a combination of jubilation and emotional darkness; particularly on a song like Angeline. “I think that by the end of the 1990’s, rock had been pushed to every limit” says Castro. “When you get to the end of the road, sometimes you have to turn around and head back to the start to clear a new path.” That’s exactly what Mighty Joe Castro & The Gravamen have done with Come On Angels, and by God it works.
KEY CUTS: Angeline, Come On Angels, Whispering Hell
NON-SECURE CONNECTION Bruce Hornsby (Thirty Tigers) *** ½
I confess it’s been some time since I picked up a Bruce Hornsby album, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been busy. Non-Secure Connection, following on the heels of last year’s Absolute Zero, isn’t a comfortable listen- but it’s a worthwhile engagement.
On his own as well as with backing bands The Range and The Noisemakers this is Bruce’s 12th studio album- more or less. Non-Secure Connection is a sometimes ethereal tangle of pop, jazz and classical with an indie rock heart. Being a Bruce Hornsby fan hardly means following a straight line; his first three records were reasonably straightforward, but when he went solo with 1993’s Harbor Lights, things started to get interesting and more expansive. “People will come up to me and say I’m your biggest fan” he says in a recent article in Spin, “I like this song and this song’, and they’re all from before 1990 or before. And I say ‘you’re missing the best part’. I’m not trying to be an asshole, but I sincerely believe that.”
What makes Hornsby such a compelling artist to follow is his musical curiosity, that willingness to follow his muse wherever it leads him. The woozy, almost scary Shit’s Crazy Out Here is said to be an ode to AAU Basketball, Time The Thief (it opens the album) is a gorgeous ballad about getting older, and the minimalist title song uses samples of John Cage compositions. He’s also done lots of soundtrack work for Spike Lee films, and that is felt here too. Hardly the stuff of The Way It Is or Across The River, but Bruce is miles and decades past what those records represent. I like Bruce for the same reason I’m a fan of Robert Plant’s post-Zeppelin solo career; for the sheer musical adventure of the paths he chooses.
“I’ve always been a little restless” he says in that same Spin article, “or maybe really restless as a creator of music, and not really interested in staying in the same place.” He’s not chasing down another big hit or trying to land on the charts, he’s making the music he feels compelled to make which, in turn, makes his journey a lot more interesting to follow. I only have 6 of his 12 albums plus the Essential Bruce Hornsby compilation, but listening to and enjoying Non-Secure Connection all day has made buying the six missing ones on my next payday seem like a very good idea. I can feel these songs inspiring me in other ways too; isn’t that what a good record should do?
KEY CUTS: Anything Can Happen (with Leon Russell), Time The Thief, No Limits
AIN’T DONE YET Savoy Brown (Quarto Valley Records) ** ½
A new album here for these British blues rockers, on the heels of 2019’s City Night. If you like your blues/rock to boogie, then Ain’t Done Yet is definitely for you.
Guitarist/ singer Kim Simmonds still drives the band, as he has done since founding it in 1965- making them only 3 years younger than The Rolling Stones. Many have passed through their ranks including Dave Peverett and Roger Earl of Foghat, but the band has included bassist Pat DeSalvo and drummer Garnet Grimm since 2009. Ain’t Done Yet is the group’s 41st album, and it’s everything you want it to be. True, Simmonds is no Robert Plant at the mic but his gruff Knopfler-esque vocals serve the songs well. Grimm and DeSalvo are, as always, a supple rhythm section. The magic really happens when Kim steps up to solo- sometimes the fire flies from his fingertips but on Feel like A Gypsy, his playing is hypnotic and gorgeous.
“The new album is a continuance of the approach I’ve been taking with the band this past decade” Simmonds says. “The big difference with Ain’t Done Yet is the multi-layer approach I took to recording the guitar parts. It’s all blues-based rock music. I try to find new and progressive ways to write and play the music I’ve loved since I was a young teenager. I emphasized song content, yet I left plenty of room for band improvisation.” The thing I like about this record and the 4 or 5 others that I have, is you can dive deep into the songs and enjoy the stories or just listen to the music and ride the groove. After a few spins here, it feels natural to do both.
Produced by Simmonds, recorded mixed and mastered by Ben Elliot at his Showplace Studios in New Jersey as have many of Savoy Brown’s recent albums, Ain’t Done Yet isn’t 3 piece suit blues, it’s denim and leather all the way. Elliot passed away shortly after the album’s completion, so Kim dedicated it to him. Cool tunes and some great blues guitar on display here, this disc will make fine road trip company.
KEY CUTS: Feel like A Gypsy, All Gone Wrong, Rocking In Louisiana
RAWER THAN RAW Bobby Rush (Deep Rush Records/ Thirty Tigers) *****
Rush has followed up a couple of scorchers- 2016’s Porcupine Meat and last year’s Sitting On Top Of The Blues- with this startlingly intimate collection of blues from his adopted home state of Mississippi. Acoustic guitar, occasional harp and Bobby’s righteously weathered voice and stomping foot make Rawer Than Raw a warm experience to cherish- good medicine for these stressful times.
The title is partly inspired by the previous such album, Raw, released in 2007. This year finds the 86 year old blues singer in fine voice and in the mood to salute artists from the state that gave us the blues. “Although I was born in Louisiana, I’m proud to call Mississippi home” says Rush, who moved there in the 80’s. “I’m saluting Mississippi guys because they, to me, stay truest to their roots. If you want to get the real deal of the blues, get it from the bluesmen who are from Mississippi.” Rawer Than Raw pays tribute to early acoustic blues greats Skip James and Robert Johnson along with some of Bobby’s contemporaries from the 50’s and 60’s like Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson II and, of course, Muddy Waters.
Putting on Rawer Than Raw feels like sitting on Bobby’s back porch on a hot, mid-summer’s day as he runs down some of the blues’ mightiest numbers with his acoustic guitar. No histrionic soloing here, just blues played the way it was born- straightforward and honest. The main appeal of the blues is that it’s a simple, honest music, particularly on records like this. Oh sure, I enjoy it when Buddy Guy or Jeff Healey rip my head off with a blinding solo but, flip side of the same coin, there’s much to be said for a guy sitting on a chair, singing a bunch of songs from the heart as he plays an acoustic guitar. Lots of great blues this year, and Rawer Than Raw is one of the crown jewels.
KEY CUTS: Shake It For Me, Sail On, Don’t Start Me To Talkin’, Smokestack Lightning
HEAT WAVE Thundermother (AFM) *****
It’s the 4th album for this Swedish all-female rock band and it CRUSHES. Full of songs powered by catchy as hell riffs, Heat Wave is like the second coming of AC/DC. This is a real grab-you-by-the-nuts rock & roll album.
Thundermother was founded in 2010 and, in 2017, reformed completely. Founder/ guitarist Filippa Nassil, who plays like a combination of Malcolm & Angus Young, lucked out when she found singer Guernica Mancini, whose blues drenched voice recalls Sass Jordan. Drummer Emlee Johansson and bassist Majsan Lindberg play straight but with plenty of muscle, absolutely perfect for this music. Heat Wave is fresh, modern hard rock elements with an irresistibly rich 70’s groove. Fine tuning was provided by Danish hard rock hit-maker Soren Andersen, an experienced producer (and gifted guitarist) who’s worked with people like Glenn Hughes, Mike Tramp and Dave Mustaine. It took Soren and the band just 3 weeks to get this together at his Copenhagen studio.
Heat Wave is brutish rock & roll, and I mean that as a compliment. It has a visceral, physical appeal that is entirely inescapable. Nassil’s guitar playing, whether she’s riffing or soloing, is genuinely thrilling, making this feel like an early 90’s AC/DC record. No need to fancy things up here with a bunch of weedly-weedly nonsense- just take a slug of cheap whiskey, strap on your axe, and start hammering away on those big chords. And they change it up too- you’ll find horny ballads, bluesy stuff, shades of punk action plus party hearty hits too. That’s rock & roll, baby!
Great rock & roll lifts you up and makes you feel invincible, which is no doubt why it remains popular despite lazy journalists who try to kill it off to make room for ‘the next big thing’. Thundermother’s Heat Wave is great rock & roll; no doubt about it. As their website says, “Thundermother don’t just play rock ‘n’ roll, they ARE rock ‘n’ roll.”
KEY CUTS: Into The Mud, Dog From Hell, Heatwave
2020 BLUES: NEW MUSIC FROM ALLIGATOR RECORDS Various Artists (Alligator) **** +
The blues isn’t just a style of music with a long history, it has a bright future too. 2020 Blues is a digital only release- available at places like I-Tunes as well as your favorite streaming platform- featuring 5 songs by label artists from forthcoming releases. If you like your blues with a side of R&B sauciness, this will tickle your fancy.
First up is Chris Cain with I Believe I Got Off Cheap from Raising Cain, due in early 2021. He has 14 records under his belt, but this is his first for Alligator. He’s got a big voice and fiery technique on the fret board, leading BB King to declare “Now that boy can PLAY the guitar.” This makes me hungry for the rest of his new album too.
Up next is another smokin’ hot guitar player, Selwyn Birchwood, with the title track from Living In A Burning House, also due in early 2021. He’s a soulful singer and a pretty great guitarist to boot- he can really let ‘er rip, with uncommon depth and feeling.
Shemekia Copeland’s ballad Uncivil War was released a couple of months ago and it’s also the title cut for an album due later this fall. The politically charged lyrics speak to the Black Lives Matter movement and to people misunderstanding and throwing hate and prejudice at each other. Like the chorus line says; “Nobody wins in an uncivil war”. Shemekia’s a great singer and I can’t wait to find out how the rest of the album feels.
R&B legend Curtis Salgado (said to have inspired The Blues Brothers) has an album coming early next year, Damage Control, from which the label has pulled The Longer That I Live for this EP. It’s a fun, upbeat, cheerful number that showcases his musically adventurous singing style, but I didn’t hear much harp on this one; maybe that will show up on the other tracks when Damage Control comes out.
Wanna hear some great harp? Check out the first collaboration between Charlie Musslewhite and Elvin Bishop on What The Hell? From 100 Years of Blues, due September 25th. The lyrics take aim at the political and social unrest infecting the U.S. Bishop mentions Trump in everything but name- safe to say he’s not impressed. Accompanied by just his guitar and Musselwhite’s harp, the song is right on the money.
The blues is alive, well and still relevant- give 2020 Blues a spin and I think you’ll agree. I’ll be playing the full EP on the September 1st edition of my blues show “Born Under A Bad Sign” on www.uniteddj.com , it starts at noon PST.
KEY CUTS: Living In A Burning House (Selwyn Birchwood), What the Hell? (Elvin Bishop & Charlie Musselwhite