SLEEPER Chickenbone Slim (Lo-Fi Mob Records) *****+
With a name like that you’d expect an old black guy with a tattered amp bent over a cheap guitar- but he’s an old white guy and his guitar is quite handsome. A mix of Chicago and Gulf Coast blues with West Coast swing, Sleeper is all kinds of great.
This is Chickenbone’s 3rd all original album and rockabilly fans will take to it like ducks to water. Sleeper was recorded last summer at Kid Andersen’s Greaseland Studios, and from the sounds of things a good time was had by all. Listening to this, as with 2017’s The Big Beat, is like time traveling to the 60’s and landing in a huge puddle of fun, retro without sounding tired or dated. The Stray Cats brought this kind of music back in the 80’s and Chickenbone is bringing it around for another go.
Featured guests here with Slim and the band include guitarist Laura Chavez (Nicki Hill, Candye Kane, Casey Hensley) plus Joey Harris & Jerry Rainey (Beat Farmers). Sleeper is gritty and soulful with a bluesy sound and clever lyrics, more than ‘just another blues record’. Yes it stays fairly close to classic blues traditions, but his varied and unique song writing really lifts it head and shoulders above other artists trying to stick to the same lane. There can only be one leader, and Chickenbone Slim is it.
Not once during Sleeper will you get the feeling that he’s phoning it in or being disingenuous in pursuit of the almighty hit. Chickenbone Slim plays this music because he loves it, and that feeling as you listen is contagious. The cover photo is his dad’s old 1940 flathead Ford, the only picture of it that exists. He talks about him in the liner notes, saying “My father passed away a few years ago and I miss him. He was a good man, and he passed on to me my curiosity, my drive, the desire to go faster, do better, and to do it the right way, even if it’s got a little ugly on it.” Sleeper hits all the right notes.
KEY CUTS: Vampire Baby, Strolling With Chickenbone, Little Victory
STEPHEN COOPER AND THE NOBODY FAMOUS (independent) ****
What we have here is the debut album from Stephen Cooper and The Nobody Famous, soul and R&B infused rock & roll with a sense of history, built on a classic Motown/ Chess/ Stax chassis with, as the bio says, “all the subtlety of a stampeding rhino.”
Singer/ tenor sax man Cooper, after 25-plus years touring as a part of other bands, has put his name on the marquee and his money where his mouth is, a gamble that has paid off. His choice to invoke the classic grooves noted above is a conscious one. “The idea is to have a living, breathing, musical conduit from the past to the present” he says, “and I think I’ve done that.” Indeed he has, but this disc is no exercise in nostalgia with ruthless horns and fuzzed-out guitars all going through Marshall stacks, and a vocal style that owes as much to Al Green as it does to Chris Cornell. “There was a feeling you used to get when you heard those (kinds of) songs, they tapped into an emotional core and left a stain on your heart” Cooper explains. “The music would end but that feeling would stay with you. We’re tapping into that DNA.”
Recorded in Milwaukee and produced by Matt Spatol, this has a bright and meaty sound, melodically aggressive but not brash or crass. This is the sound of a group of talented players throwing caution to the wind and going hell bent for leather… it’s exhilarating. This disc has explosive barn-burners, tender ballads and everything in between. Stephen Cooper doesn’t have a tidy, mannered voice’ there’s a recklessness to his singing that is lots of fun to listen to. Cooper promised “a living, breathing musical conduit from the past to the present” and that’s exactly what this baby delivers. The band name “And The Nobody Famous” seems facetious and it amuses me, because if they keep delivering records this good, this much fun, everybody is going to know who they are.
KEY CUTS: Higher Love, Three Shades Of Black, It’s You
WORLDS APART Allen/Olzon (Frontiers) *** ½
If you love Allen/ Lande’s first 3 albums you’re going to really dig this too. Singer Russell Allen (Symphony X, Adrenaline Mob) has teamed up with Anette Olzon (ex-Nightwish, The Dark Element) for a dramatic and hard driving new album.
Acclaimed Swedish guitarist, song writer and producer Magnus Karlsson, who was behind the first three Allen/ Lande records, is back for Worlds Apart. Allen and Olzon share vocal duties while Karlsson plays guitar, bass and keys as Anders Kollerfors pounds the drums. What makes this album cool is the hard rock muscle with an almost pop melodic sensibility. Then, of course, you have blindingly talented singers like Russell and Anette, and the symphonic underpinning of Karlsson’s keyboard work- aside from everything else he’s doing!
Worlds Apart is like those first three Allen/ Lande albums (I have The Great Divide) but heavier. Adding Olzon’s voice to the mix really opens up the melodic possibilities, they can go in almost any direction now, and they often do. This disc is tight, hard and well played, and Magnus Karlsson’s production and riffing topped with daredevil soloing really puts it over the top. The hard-charging energy of most of the songs makes a ballad like Cold Inside really stand out. If radio these days wasn’t just an automated jukebox that song could be a big hit, and I mean worldwide.
Who knows how far this Allen/ Olzon thing will go? If Worlds Apart is any indication and Karlsson maintains a major role in the creative process, then the sky’s the limit. Not everybody likes hip-hop or mainstream pop, there are lots of us who enjoy big, crazy rock & roll records like this one, powered by superior musicianship. Labels like Frontiers recognize that there is still an appetite for well crafted hard rock, and we’re hungry for more.
KEY CUTS: Worlds Apart, Cold Inside, No Sign Of Life
MELANGE Louise Cappi (independent) ****
This is a nice change from the blitzkrieg hard rock and back alley blues I’ve been listening to of late- not that I’m complaining. Louise is a New Orleans-based singer/ songwriter and entertainer, and Melange is a delicious noir jazz confection.
Melange is the perfect title for this 9 song set as it touches on Latin music by way of Afro-Cuban and bossa nova with detours through rock, funk, swing and ballads, all with an eye on the blues. You’ll recognize some of these songs I’m sure, like Roberta Flack’s Feel Like Makin’ Love, George & Ira Gershwin’s Summertime and Leon Russell’s Song For You. You’re going to love the casual self assurance with which these songs are played. The musicians are comfortable, in the pocket, and that’s relaxing.
The centerpiece of Melange for me is the fusion of Chain Of Fools and Unchain My Heart. While I do prefer Aretha’s and brother Ray’s versions respectively, putting the two songs together is a genius move and Louise pulls it off well. Bella Nola is a song she wrote about New Orleans. “I thought about all the good times, about how the people of this city like to celebrate life” she says in a liner note about the tune. “Then came Hurricane Katrina in 2005. She blew through the city with an almost jealous vengeance. She (New Orleans) rose up and rebuilt herself to once again take her rightful place as the Crown jewel of the south.”
Louise Cappi is a passionate, wonderfully expressive singer who wraps herself around these classic melodies in a beguiling way, and I love the way the musicians handle these songs. I usually turn my nose up at the term ‘smooth jazz’, but Melange is smooth, for the most part jazz, and I’m enjoying it a great deal. It’s the right kind of record to put on at the end of your day when you turn down the lights, enjoy a couple of fingers of nice scotch and unwind. Dig it.
KEY CUTS: Talk To Me, Bella Nola, Summertime
WHAT MY EYES HAVE SEEN… John Blues Boyd (Gulf Coast Records) *****
John Boyd is a bluesman with quite a story to tell. When you put on What My Eyes Have Seen, you’re getting an intimate and sometimes chilling look into his life. It also happens to be one hell of a record.
Guitarist Kid Andersen as a writer, player and producer is an integral part of My Eyes. He introduced Guy Hale to Boyd’s music last year while they were working on a Billy Boy Arnold album and they knew they had to make a record with John. “Neither Kid nor I wanted to do covers, John is a completely original artist and deserved songs written for him and him alone” Guy says. You’ll hear Boyd’s life throughout this record; picking cotton in Mississippi at age 7, being run out of town by racist forces, running away to join Martin Luther King Jr.’s Freedom March at age 16. Still, he overcame all of this and made a good life for him and his wife Dona Mae in California.
What My Eyes Have Seen is a record with great depth and soul, as it should be. As a singer John Blues Boyd feels a lot like Long John Baldry, and some of the songs have a Booker T. Washington feel to them, both of which are very good things. As a decades-long blues fan I’ve enjoyed many a tall tale within the blues framework, but the fact that these songs are rooted in Boyd’s life give them more substance. A Beautiful Woman is about his wife, Why Did You Take That Shot is about Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, and That Singing Roofer is… well, I’m sure you can guess. The saddest tune is Forty Nine Years, about the death of his wife and how he handled it.
Ideally, when you listen to any album you come away from it feeling that you’ve had a glimpse into someone’s life. With What My Eyes Have Seen, that experience is infinitely richer than most. From the music itself to the lyrics and John’s narrative, I can’t imagine being without this in my collection.
KEY CUTS: 49 Years, I Got To Leave My Mark, In My Blood, A Beautiful Woman
WAITING FOR MONDAY Waiting For Monday (Frontiers) ***
This is a new band out of Los Angeles, and this is their fairly promising self-titled debut. If the thought of a group that sounds like Journey, Foreigner and Styx tickles your eardrum, then you should get your hands on this.
WFM includes vocalist Rudy Cardenas, originally from Venezuela and a finalist in season 6 of American Idol, whose voice bears an uncanny resemblance to Steve Perry from 30 years ago. The melodic muscle here is supplied by guitarist August Zadra (Dennis DeYoung’s guitar player since 2010), who also pitches in on vocal duties. If you absolutely must label this then melodic rock fits as well as any, and the bands mentioned above tell you roughly what to expect. Waiting For Monday is like waking up in the 80’s, thinking all the nonsense we’ve been through since then has been a bad dream.
The band is rounded out by Joe Travers (drums), Walter Ino (guitars, keys) and Eric Baines on bass. I’ve not heard of any of these players before, but Waiting For Monday aims to capture what would seem a specific period on rock & roll’s timeline. They’re like actors in a Broadway theatre with grand gestures and movements as they play to the audience in the back row. It sounds like the golden age of corporate rock coming around once more, and how that makes you feel depends largely on what you think of 80’s rock in general. It is a definite stylistic choice.
On one hand I really like the energy here and the construction of the songs themselves is okay, even the performances, but on the other hand it all feels a bit predictable and derivative. Jeez… it sounds like I hate this but I really don’t- if I did, the rating would be * or **. Waiting For Monday is good and solid, but on the flip side almost unremarkable. I do enjoy the way it sounds and feels but it doesn’t really touch me on a deep level, which becomes increasingly important as you get older. Sorry guys.
KEY CUTS: Until The Dawn, Love You Forever, Inside Your Head
THE TRIANGLE Lisa Mills (Melody Place Music) *****
If you’re researching singers and come across “belters”. Lisa Mills’ picture should be the first thing you see. Her voice is raw and jam-packed with emotion, something you’ll note time and time again on The Triangle. It reminds me of the first time I heard Beth Hart and Melissa Etheridge, the vocals and songs themselves so intense I can hardly take it.
The album title is a geographical reference, an area surrounded by Memphis, Muscle Shoals and Jackson, Mississippi where great music comes from. When you listen to these songs, they feel like they belong. The Triangle showcases blues and soul classics as well as some little-known gems, all given new life by Lisa’s stunning vocal delivery and the production talents of Fred Mollin. Smooth and rough at the same time, loaded with emotional outbursts thanks to Lisa’s singing, these songs stick to you like sweat.
“I’m so excited that The Triangle is finally out” Lisa said back in January. “Recording this album has been an incredible journey with my formidable producer Fred Mollin. His concept and creativity have resulted in the most heartfelt album I have ever made.” Of the record, Fred says “I wanted to make a traditional R&B/blues album that preserved the spirit of the original songs while giving them a fresh new life and point of view.” Greenwood, Mississippi is the first single. Originally recorded by Little Richard in the early 70’s, it features some of the musicians that were on the original sessions. Another song on the record is the bonus track Just Walking In The Rain. It was recorded at Sun Studios as was the original by The Prisonaires in 1953, a doo-wop group from The Tennessee Penitentiary, though it later became a hit for Johnny Ray.
The Triangle has a sense of history, fine musicianship and passionate performances from Lisa Mills that makes it irresistible. Plus, I’m chuffed to add yet another version of I’d Rather Go Blind to my collection. This is the sound of greatness.
KEY CUTS: Greenwood Mississippi, I’d Rather Go Blind, Someone Else Is Steppin’ In
OLD SCHOOL Tom Gilberts (Polymerase Records) *****+
When it comes to the blues, I like all kinds… but if I’m being honest, guitar-based blues tops the list. Old School, Gilberts’ 2nd release for this label, absolutely kills. There are vocal cuts and there are instrumentals, which only the best players can carry off well. Old School is a masterpiece of fine guitar playing.
I was intrigued by the cover photo and the album title, and when I noticed it was produced by Terry Robb, a blues guitarist of uncommon skill from Portland (his Confessin’ My Dues was #6 on my best of 2019 list) I got really excited. Old School sounds every bit as good as I wanted it to. Aside from Tom on guitar and occasional vocals, we have Brian Foxworth on drums and Dave Captein on bass. Together they don’t stomp through a bunch of 12 bar stuff, as much fun as that might be… their collective touch has a light jazz feel, a decidedly un-nerdy sophistication, inherent in the abilities of each as well as Robb’s ability to coax a deft collective performance from them. The quality of this recording in terms of clarity, openness and dimensionality are also due in large part to the work of engineer Dennis Carter.
Michael P. Jones of Positively Entertainment says this disc “grabs you by your memories and gives you a hard shake to keep you in reality.” All of the songs were written by Tom Gilberts and while I enjoy the vocal stuff, I find myself drawn equally to instrumentals like Zoot Suit Shuffle, which comes across exactly how the title leads you to believe it will. Great songs, fine production and tasteful playing; Gilberts is one of the most exquisitely expressive guitar players I’ve ever heard, right up there with Ronnie Earl. Old School is a tough one to beat.
KEY CUTS: Lady Luck, Nighttime, Old School
GUY Steve Earle & The Dukes (New West Records) *****++
Full disclosure, this is not a new album; it was released March 29th of last year. However, when the record company sent me a download of Steve’s forthcoming Ghosts Of West Virginia (due May 22nd), the press release on that one included some info on Guy. I asked for a download of that too so I could use cuts on my United DJ’s radio show. I ended up enjoying this so much that I figured while I wait to review the new record, I’d better review this and let you know about it too, incase you missed it.
Guy is 16 songs written by the legendary Guy Clark, a name country fans should know, produced by Steve and his longtime production partner Ray Kennedy. Aside from his backing band The Dukes this also includes contributions from people like Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Terry Allen and Jerry Jeff Walker. This collection comes a decade after Earle’s Grammy winning tribute to Townes Van Zandt, another one of Steve’s main inspirations. He first met Guy after hitchhiking to Nashville in 1974. A few months later he found himself taking over for Rodney Crowell on bass in Clark’s band. “Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark were like Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg to me” Steve says. “No way I could get out of doing this record. When I get to the other side, I didn’t want to run into Guy having made the Townes record and not one about him. When it comes to mentors, I’m glad I had both.”
Guy Clark (1941-2016) was one of the great storytellers, and Earle does these songs real justice- Guy would be pleased. Not unlike Steve’s Townes record, Guy is a saga on friendship, it’s ups and downs, and what it endures. Emotionally this is an extremely deep, rich and affecting album. “Guy wasn’t really a hard record to make” Earle says. We did it fast, five or six days with almost no overdubbing. I wanted it to sound live- when you’ve got a catalogue like Guy’s and you’re only doing 16 tracks, you know each one is going to be strong.”
I was aware of Guy Clark before this but not very familiar with his music, and that’s going to change. Always a sucker for a good story, Guy got to me fast and hard. I’m kind of a folky when I’m not making my ears bleed with heavy metal and don’t consider myself a country guy particularly… but this is one of the best records I’ve heard in my entire life.
KEY CUTS: Old Friends, Desperados Waiting For A Train, The Last Gunfighter Ballad
INFIDEL Ambush (High Roller Records) *****+
Think British Steel-era Judas Priest and Scorpions circa Blackout or Balls To The Wall Accept. Got it? That’s Ambush’s 3rd album, Infidel and it’s DEADLY.
Hailing from a small town in Sweden, Ambush spent a lot of time getting Infidel just right. “Since the release of Desecrator (their 2nd album) in 2015, we’ve been writing quite a lot of songs” says singer Oskar Jacobsson. “After we condensed all the songs down to ten, we had plenty of time to work with arrangements, lyric themes and song structures.” Judging from what’s coming out of my speakers at this moment, it was time well spent.
Those song structures recall Scorpions, the tight, palm muted riffing reminds me of Accept’s Wolf Hoffmann, and the frantic pace of songs like The Demon Within bring to mind Iron Maiden. The subject matter reflected in the song titles (The Demon Within, Hellbiter, Lust For Blood) seems atypical metal fodder, but so what? The first thing you’ll notice is the music itself, how it moves and how it picks you up and gets your pulse racing. The lyrics themselves tell some interesting stories but you don’t need to get them right away to enjoy the record.
Top marks for everyone in the band on this one; Jacobsson sounds like early Bruce Dickinson meets Rob Halford, but let’s not forget the rest of the guys either- Olof Engkvist and Adam Hagelin on guitars, Ludwig Sjoholm and Burning Fire on bass and drummer Linus Fritszon. It’s their ability to lock in together tighter than the seal on a jam jar that gives Oskar a spectacular platform from which to work rock & roll magic.
Infidel is what you would call traditional heavy metal, which next to the blues is my favorite musical form. I’d never heard of Ambush before receiving this download, but now I am addicted to its wicked charms. This is just friggin’ AWESOME.
KEY CUTS: Heart Of Stone, The Demon Within, Infidel