HEART OF FIRE Ally Venable (Ruf Records)
Here is some Texas-style kick-ass blues here for you. Heart Of Fire, the follow-up to 2018’s Texas Honey, sees this talented singer/ guitarist come out swinging. Urgent and passionate, this disc is surely the sound of our times. “My vision was to really spread a positive message of love” Ally says. “The world needs that right now.” Still in her early twenties, Venable rocks with swagger and confidence.
Heart Of Fire, her 4th album, was recorded last February in Stantonville, Tennessee, with superstar producer Jim Gaines, resulting in a terrific sounding record. Still in her early twenties, Venable rocks with the swagger and confidence of Stevie Ray- her rhythm playing is chunky and full of attitude, her lead breaks scorching thrill rides. This is like a southern rock & roll hot rod with blues suspension made from defiant, passionate, honest and raw songs. As a singer, her tone and clarity bring to mind Miranda Lambert.
In a world full of precisely constructed, passionless electronic pop, these old-soul gunslinger riffs stand tall above the crowd. Heart Of Fire isn’t ALL pedal to the metal, there’s a surprising cover of Bill Withers’ Use Me powered by congas, rubbery bass, and a grooving lick with a similar vibe to Ted Nugent’s Stranglehold. From balls to the wall rock & roll down to a cool ballad like Road To Nowhere, with vocal harmonies by Devon Allman, there’s nothing Ally can’t stare down and conquer. Lest you think a chick with a guitar can’t play great blues, check out the instrumental Tribute to SRV that closes out the record and get back to me… might want to wipe that egg off your face first.
Heart Of Fire is just what you’d expect from an album with that title; raw, energetic, confident and blistering. “My goal for this album was to give an outlet for people” Ally notes, “that’s really where to core of these songs come from.” Want something to get your ya-yas out? This is the one.
KEY CUTS: Hateful Blues, Bring On The Pain (with Kenny Wayne Shepherd), tribute To SRV
DAMAGE CONTROL Curtis Salgado (Alligator)
Curtis Salgado’s first album in 4 years is a stone soul party. Damage Control, due February 26th, is a raucous, joyous good time with a Fats Domino kind of feel- not entirely unexpected from a guy that supposedly inspired the Blues Brothers.
Salgado, a native of Oregon, describes Damage Control as “a rock & roll record with lyrics that hit. You can dance (to these songs), but the words have to carry the weight.” Recorded in Tennessee and California with 3 different world class road tested blues and roots musicians, the album was produced by Salgado himself. The stage was set last June when Alligator records released the opening track The Longer That I Live as a digital single. I liked it, played it a couple of times on my UDJ blues show, then waited patiently for the rest of the record to come along, and the wait was worth it. Of that particular song, Curtis notes that “life is all about damage control… trouble and then some. It’s about dealing with what gets thrown at you and saying I ain’t finished yet.” Having won fights with liver cancer, lung cancer and come through quadruple bypass surgery, Salgado certainly knows of what he’s talking… er, singing about.
Damage Control has some blues undercurrents but you’ll hear mostly soul with a healthy dash of Creole swamp. Salgado has a beautifully weathered singing voice, not unlike that of Delbert McClinton. This is a street-smart, soul searching collection of vividly detailed and instantly memorable songs that entertain even while they’re serving up things worth thinking about. The combination of lyrical messages and hard to resist grooviosity make this disc soulfully delicious and nourishing too. It’s 12 originals plus a cover of Larry Williams’ Slow Down, covered most famously by The Beatles.
In the past, word on Curtis Salgado’s music is that it’s “triumphant, blues-soaked R&B”, and that certainly applies to Damage Control. Now please excuse me while I give this another spin tonight before turning in. Hit me Curtis, I’m all ears.
KEY CUTS: The Fix Is In, The Longer That I Live, Damage Control
TOO MEAN TO DIE Accept (Nuclear Blast)
If there were an Olympic marathon of heavy metal, I’d bet on Accept. They’ve had a long career and in 2021 show no signs of slowing down. Too Mean To Die, their 5th album since a 2010 resurrection, is a hard, aggressive, fast thing of beauty. Produced again by Andy Sneap (Judas Priest, Megadeth, Saxon), this is excellent.
Accept have broken up multiple times in the last 3 or so decades, with guitarist/ principle songwriter Wolf Hoffmann being the sole original member since the group first started in 1968 as Band X. Their biggest success was 1983’s Balls To The Wall, their only record to go gold in the U.S. and Canada. After being inactive for a number of years, a chance meeting and jam session American singer Mark Tornillo resulted in Accept’s return to duty with 2010’s impressive Blood Of The Nations, and they’ve been on an upward trajectory ever since.
Too Mean To Die was recorded in Nashville by the new lineup which, aside from Hoffmann and Tornillo includes bassist Martin Montik and drummer Christopher Williams. On rhythm guitar is Uwe Lulis, and joining the band on guitar in 2019 was Philip Shouse, a former member of Gene Simmons’ solo band. Wolf is thrilled with his addition, noting on the band website that “Phil was a part of our orchestral project and was also completely convincing live. We recognized his great talent immediatel;y and simply wouldn’t let him go.” If iron Maiden can have 3 guitar players, why not Accept? The hot guitar duels between Wolf and Phil here raise the excitement level on the new record to another level.
Tornillo again proves himself a versatile singer, unleashing metal screams and will and bringing it down too for TMTD’s ballad The Best Is Yet To Come, something he was first noted for with Kill The Pain from Blood of The Nations. Williams and Montik are the perfect rhythm section with a relentless, propulsive style that gives Hoffmann and Tornillo incredible freedom to create with. As a producer, Sneap has given the band a consistent sound since they reconvened in 2009l; he understands who they are and what they need, which is why the last 5 albums have been so spectacular. Some might bemoan the similarity of these records to each other but, like AC/DC, they know what they like and what they do best. Hey- if it ain’t broke, why fix it?
When you mention Accept this first thing people think is Balls To The Wall; now they should be thinking Too Mean To Die. This, gang, is a glorious, relentless metal statement.
KEY CUTS: The Undertaker, The Best Is yet To Come, Samson & Delilah
ONE EYE OPEN Kat Danser (independent)
Danser’s 6th album reflects her decades long crawl through the back alleys of blues joints from Havana to Edmonton. One Eye Open ranges from punk energy to deep, slow blues, Afro-Cuban jazz and traditional New Orleans musical joie de vivre. It’s quite a trip.
One Eye Open once again sees Danser teaming up with guitarist/ producer Steve Dawson. As a concession to the times we find ourselves in, Dawson had to assemble the album remotely from his studio in Nashville with the musicians scattered across the continent and Kat recording her vocals in Edmonton. Though these songs weren’t recorded live off the floor as Steve and Kat would have preferred, the resulting performances are organic, intuitive and in the moment; the perfect compliment to her roughly charming vocal style.
This is a wonderfully textured disc, from the performance of the core band- Dawson on guitars, Gary Craig on drums and Jeremy Holmes on bass- to the horn section that appears on 6 of the 10 tracks and Kevin McKendree’s soulful keyboard work on like Lonely & The Dragon. 8 of the songs are originals, plus there’s an upbeat cover of Gus Cannon’s Bring It With You When You Come (a song from the roaring twenties) and as well as Jessie May Hemphill’s Get Right Church. There’s also the punk-like slap in the face of One Eye Closed, yet Kat Danser is always within reach of her home base; the blues. Asked why people find the genre so appealing, she says “the blues give us a place to bring all of our hope and sorrow.” Perhaps most poignant is End Of Days which was, along with most of the other songs, written in the sanctuary of her favorite cigar shop. “I wrote it on the night where Covid really hit home, so it naturally reflects all of our fear, panic, and judgment that have marked our lives since.”
In One Eye Open Danser has a record that is raucous and introspective at the same time, cautious yet hopeful- the perfect soundtrack for the unforgettable year we’ve all had. From the roadhouse swagger of Train Wreck to the Patsy Cline-ish Please Don’t Cry and the slow blues of Lonely & the Dragon this disc takes you around the world, often traveling through the dark back alleys our parents warned us about. Rarely has hope and despair sounded this compelling.
KEY CUT: End Of Days, Lonely & The Dragon, Train Wreck
THE BLUES GROOVE SESSIONS #1 Shakin’ Woods (independent)
Funk and blues with a jam band feel- it’s all here on Shakin’ Woods debut 4 song E.P. The Blues Groove Sessions #1 is elemental with a thick backbeat and grooves as wide as any freeway you’d care to name. The two Stevies- Wonder & Vaughan- would dig it.
Shakin’ Woods is singer/ guitarist Rich Russman, drummer Paul Dudley, george berlton on bass and Austin day on keys. “Austin and I are big Allmans fans” notes Russman, “that’s where some of the jam/ loose grooves aspects come in. At the end of the day, though, we’re still a blues band at the core.” They cover a lot of territory in just 4 songs, 3 originals and one by Phish main man Trey Anastasio in Cayman View. Classic funk, blues and jam- if any or all 3 of those fall in your wheelhouse, Shakin’ Woods is playing music you’ll want to hear.
The Blues Groove also benefits from having a top flight crew in the control room in producers/ mixers Jack Douglas and Jay Messina, who made sure all of the electrons went to the right places. This is an absorbing little adventure that I think you’re really going to dig, and this is just the beginning; EP’s #2 & #3 have already been recorded and will be released in the coming months. If they’re even close to this good, I’;m in.
KEY CUTS: Still Alive, Like A Superman
OMINOUS Lake Of Tears (AFM)
In a country full of progressive social policies and tall blonde chicks what, exactly, do the Swedes have to be depressed about? Plenty, if we are to believe Lake of Tears. After nearly a decade of silence Daniel Brennare and his fellow pioneers of dark music have returned with Ominous. With songs rooted in illness and depression, it is the perfect soundtrack for the short, grey days and long, cold, dark nights. You’ve been warned.
Brennare combines gothic rock with post-punk tunes and quiet, melancholic sounds that build into powerfully heavy statements that, sometimes, are almost too much to take. Lake of tears only pays fleeting attention to the contemporary rules of form when it comes to their songs, somewhere between praying and letting loose howls of anguish. The press info I got with this album describes it as “the illegitimate child of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, The Sisters Of Mercy and Pink Floyd with a touch of lurking doom.” It’s also a spiritual cousin to Staind’s 2001 wrist-slashing classic Break The Cycle. As someone who often wanders similar dare emotional corridors, this could be dangerous for me.
Ominous is a bummer of an album, but that is deliberate. No peppy dance numbers to mix it up, it’s roughly 44 minutes with the sole purpose of bumming you out. With everything we’ve been through since last March, I question whether a record like this is the best idea right now. But then again, such wallowing in misery can be cathartic and renewing too, and maybe that was the point all along. Ominous is the perfect title for this, make sure you’re ready for it.
KEY CUTS: In Gloom, At The Destination, One Without Dreams