DIAL IT IN Reverend Freakchild (Treated & Released Records) ****
Another slice of real deal folk/rock blues with a touch of psychedelia here from the Rev. With a name like ‘Freakchild’ you might expect something of a hot mess but don’t be fooled- the songs on Dial It In are as deep as the day is long.
Freak’s last album was a delightfully intimate live performance recorded at a Portland radio station (Preachin’ The Blues), and he continues to spread that gospel on his new record with a little help from his friends. The backbeat throughout is provide by Chris Parker (Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, John Hammond Jr.), with various guests dropping in on guitar, blues harp and piano throughout these 11 cuts. Original songs are mixed with pretty heckin’ cool versions of Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus, Bob Dylan’s It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) and Blind Willie Johnson’s traditional Soul Of A Man, where he ads a few new verses- cheeky!
As Living Blues Magazine puts it, Reverend Freakchild’s “attitude is irreverent, but his enthusiasm for the blues is clear” which is obvious on his previous releases (I have two) but especially on Dial It In. According to the liner notes the Rev produced this album (a Moving At The Speed Of Pain production), providing a loose but articulate back porch ambience, an inviting sound that really draws you in… you know, the kind of music that you find yourself wanting to be around.
The disc is book-ended by the instrumentals Opus Earth and Opus Space featuring “overtone and cloud piercing voices” that, despite the titles, are straight up blues. While the whole album is blues-based Jorma Kaukonen describes Dial It In as having a “psychedelic folk/rock flavour” and that seems fair. If you love the blues but also have a taste for adventure, this is the album for you.
KEY CUTS: Personal Jesus, title track, Opus Space
STONE TEMPLE PILOTS Stone Temple Pilots (Warner) *****
A terrific new record from STP, their first with new lead singer Jeff Gutt. It rocks, it rolls, it struts, it wanders… it’s really cool. It’s a fresh start for this band, a re-set, so calling it Stone Temple Pilots is the right move.
After the multiple splits with and death of Scott Weiland in 2015, the choice for the DeLeo brothers (and drummer Eric Kretz) was simple; pick up their toys and go home, or find a new singer and carry on. In February of 2016 they launched an online search to find a new vocalist, settling on X-Factor season 3 runner-up Jeff Gutt. He’s a solid choice; his voice has the range and some of the timbre of Weiland but doesn’t sound exactly like him, so he can handle the old stuff without sounding like an impressionist. “We are thrilled about what lies ahead. The best way for us to honour our past is to keep making new music” observes guitarist Dean Deleo.
I lost interest in STP after their 4th album, 99’s No.4, so am quite surprised to be loving the new record. There’s an attitude in the grooves, a palpable confidence, that’s been missing since their first couple of albums. Is that from no longer having to deal with Scott Weiland’s ‘issues’? Perhaps in part. The group is forging ahead with a new sense of purpose and belief in what they’re doing, a sort of Zeppelin-esque state of being, that the world is theirs for the taking, and that’s exhilarating to feel.
Stone Temple Pilots, in the most basic terms, is a kick-ass rock & roll record. It doesn’t sound out of place at all when you consider the rest of their stuff- Kretz and bassist Robert DeLeo are a formidable rhythm section, there a certain classic Jimmy Page-ness to Dean’s guitar work here, and Jeff Gutt proves that he absolutely belongs in this band. I’m more excited now about STP than I have been in nearly 20 years.
KEY CUTS: Never Enough, Meadow, Middle of Nowhere
BOARDING HOUSE REACH Jack White (Third Man/ Columbia/ XL) **** ½
This is Jack White’s 3rd solo album- but aren’t most of his records really solo efforts? I put Boarding House Reach on expecting a challenging and ultimately rewarding listening experience… Jack does not disappoint.
Boarding House Reach is, by White’s own admission, a bizarre album. While I haven’t liked everything he’s done, I admire his flagrant disregard for standard recording techniques and procedures. I’m sure Jack would enjoy it if millions of people dug this disc, but I get the impression that sort of acceptance is entirely secondary. From the rap flow on Ice Station Zebra to the classic funk vibe of Corporation, he just does whatever the hell he wants, stays true to himself, and that is admirable.
Jack White produced and co-mixed Boarding House Reach as well as playing drums, guitar, organ and synths. The songs are more melodically straightforward than expected, even though they are filled with odd touches like squonky synth parts, slowed down vocal lines and the sort of general over-drivenness that seems to be his sonic calling card. When you listen to a Jack White album (like this one) he doesn’t want you to be comfortable; I think he’d prefer you to be going “what the hell was that? Let’s here it again…” I know he’s a blues fan- in the documentary It Might Get Loud, he says his favourite album is Son House’s Death Letter… but given the way he puts things together, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s a closet Roger Waters/ Pink Floyd fan too.
If you’re going to take the leap with Boarding House Reach, be prepared to spend some time with it. This is not a straightforward record, and even after 4 spins I’m still picking up new things and shifting vibes. Classic funk motifs and robo-noises emerge again and again, but there’s so much more going on. One thing’s for sure- I love this album.
HAPPY SONGS FOR THEAPOCALYPSE Eric Corne (Forty Below) ****
Even though the description of this disc warned me, I wasn’t prepared for the breadth and width of Eric Corne’s new album. A prolific songwriter and founder of Forty Below Records, Corne’s Happy Songs For The Apocalypse is a sprawling patchwork of Americana, drawing on blues, folk, rock & roll and alt country. It sounds just like I hoped it would.
Emotionally, Happy Songs runs the emotional gamut, from heartache to optimism . Instrumentally, no stone is left unturned as they make use of horns, violins, tack piano, pedal steel, dulcimer, accordion, harmonica and theremin, and that’s besides the usual bass, drums and guitars. The rock & roll stuff here has a swaggering attitude that suits the songs well, rough around the edges Friday night barroom stuff, and in the quieter numbers (like Short Wave Preachers) I was reminded more than once of Blue Rodeo.
Happy Songs For The Apocalypse sure starts off with a purpose in the song Mad World, no relation to Tom Cochrane. “If we stumble, if we fall/ find our backs against the wall/ revolution of the world begins to stall”. We all like to believe that there is something of a hero in all of us, but we have to stand up and be counted. Despite being a cranky old man myself, and some of the things I’ve said about millennials too, I am proud and cautiously optimistic of the stand that generation is taking against the NRA.
But this is music not politics, and the tracks on Happy Songs About The Apocalypse are good company that give you plenty to think about. Lots of special guests on this record, their time well spent, and production by Eric Corne is perfect. Yeah- good stuff.
KEY CUTS: Mad World, Short Wave Preachers, The Distance You Run
BETTER PART OF ME Dulcie Taylor (Black Iris Records) ****+
Some albums make you work to get to the inside, others hold the door open and welcome you in- that’s the kind of record Better Part Of Me is. Acoustically driven with gentle melodies and outstanding playing, it’s like a warm hug with a side of great stories.
Better Part Of Me feels sort of like a cross between early Shawn Colvin and Lucinda Williams, a combination of sweet and sad messages couched in disarming melodies. It goes from the straight up romance of God Did Me A Favor to the environmental message behind Halfway To Jesus. Of that song Dulcie says “Our planet is suffering through ravaging climactic change that has brought on catastrophic storms, commonly called ‘1000 year storms’, indicating how rare they should be” she notes. “We must take action to save our planet.” To which I would add to save ourselves.
Produced by George Nauful, co-produced by Damon Castillo and Dulcie Taylor, Better Part Of Me has an easy, un-crowded pace that almost makes you feel like you were there in the studio. Lots of people took part here, too many to mention. “I am so thankful to have such incredibly talented people to work with” Taylor says about the sessions that led to this album. “I trust them, I thoroughly enjoy their company, I share their aesthetic values and we have a lot of fun together.” That feeling and spirit is quite palpable, in the grooves and in between the lines.
Better Part Of Me will never fill the dance floor, nor was it ever meant to. Rather than encouraging us to lurch about in some sort of semi-rhythmic, spastic fashion, it offers something far more satisfying; an intimate conversation that goes right to the soul. This one will stick with me for a very long time.
KEY CUTS: Used To Know It All, Halfway To Jesus, Better Part Of Me
SHINE BRIGHT Marcia Ball (Alligator) *****
Whenever a new Marcia Ball album sees the light of day its cause for celebration, and Shine Bright, due April 20th, is no exception to that rule. Rolling Stone, who’ve been reviewing albums a lot longer than I have, praise this album as “Rollicking, playful, good-time blues and intimate, reflective balladry… her songs ring with emotional depth.” To put that in my own words, what we have here is the perfect album.
Born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and inspired by the amazing Irma Thomas, Ball is a great writer and vocalist, and killer New Orleans barrelhouse piano player. Of Shine Bright she says “It is a ridiculously hopeful, cheerful record”, and it certainly sounds that way. Even the more seriously numbers go down quite well. The secret according to Marcia “is to set the political songs to a good dance beat”, and it works like a hot-damn.
Produced by Steve Berlin (Los Lobos), the aggressively hopeful Shine Bright is an irresistible, celebratory blend of rollicking, two-fisted New Orleans piano, Louisiana swamp rock and smouldering Texas blues. Billboard calls it “heartfelt, powerful and righteous” , and you’d be hard-pressed to describe it otherwise. The good time vibe throughout makes getting into this one a snap and there’s a gospel undercurrent that gives the songs an emotional stickiness. My first time through, Shine Bright just made me feel good. On the 2nd and 3rd pass is when the emotional content of lyrics really started to sink in.
Nothing much to add here, really. Shine Bright has so much going on musically and lyrically that each spin reveals something new to add to the colors you’re already hearing and feeling. Like I said at the outset, this is the perfect album.
KEY CUTS: Shine Bright, They Don’t Make ‘Em Like That, World Full of Love