Music Reviews by the Rock Doctor: March 2020
By John Kereiff.
CAN YOU SEE ME? Maya Rae (Black Hen Music) **** ½
Here is the debut album for this up and coming Vancouver singer/ songwriter. Can You See Me, releasing April 3rd, is full of promise and hope for the future, musically and on a larger scale too. It’s sophisticated, gently inspiring pop music for the ages.
CBC Music notes that Maya is “a supremely gifted artist who is able to phrase like Sarah Vaughan but write a lyric like Joni Mitchell”; gotta like those possibilities. Maya and her brother, Gabriel, began writing songs together a couple of years ago. Their influences range from Carole King, Nina Simone, The Beatles and Joni Mitchell to Ed Sheeran and Adele, which shows in their jazzy, varied grip on song craft. Producer Steve Dawson liked her demo so much he invited her down to Nashville to record, gathering a group of hot young players to flesh out what would become Can You See Me. With only one vocal re-take in the whole session, the album was recorded live off the floor.
Musically speaking this album is supple and adventurous, full of grooves that are a wonderful ride. I’m enjoying the lyrics too, inasmuch as I’ve been able to absorb them so far and dive in. “All of the songs are relevant to my own life” she says. “The title track is about choosing to remove the masks we wear (in order) to reveal ourselves.” As they unfold they’ll remind you either of yourself or someone you know. Her singing voice is melodic and pretty with a nice vibrato. At first it felt ‘ordinary’, like someone in an Idol type contest trying too earnestly, but the other day while driving home from work I had Freedom Fighter at acceptable volume and got goose bumps, then I got it.
Can You See Me is sophisticated and ambitious for a first record, and it delivers. www.mayaraemusic.com
KEY CUTS: I Get By, Freedom Fighter, Here
MOVING WALLS Matthew Good (Warner Music Canada) *****
This is Matthew Good’s 13th solo album since the dissolution of The Matthew Good Band in 2002. Moving Walls is sumptuous, orchestral and multi-faceted with lyrical stories and observations that grow deeper on every spin. It’s a great record.
When asked to describe Moving Walls, Good is typically cagey. “Given my age and that it’s mostly acoustic, I guess you could call it ‘adult contemporary’” he says, “it’s not a rock record that’s for sure. But in this day and age of everyone knowing everything, I really like the idea of people figuring out things for themselves. I made a piece of art and it’s out there in the world for anyone who chooses to find it.” There are dramatically rock moments on it for sure, but the overall acoustic vibe really invites you to climb inside each song and wander about. Matthew’s struggles with mental health are well known (look up his profile on Wikipedia if you’re not familiar), and knowing that he’s been down some dark roads leaves you open to consider his words more closely.
Moving Walls was written entirely by Good and cut with longtime collaborator/ engineer Warne Livesey, with most instruments being played by the two. Even when it sounds like there’s a whole band and an orchestra involved the songs are surprisingly intimate, perhaps moreso than on previous records like Something Like A Storm or Chaotic Neutral. As a singer he’s a little bit Michael Stipe-ish which lends a certain vulnerability to the lyrics. It’s not difficult at all to just fall into Moving Walls and get beautifully lost.
Moving Walls has, as expected and understandably, some long shadows. “During this album I was living with my mom and dad, I moved here after my divorce. My dad has dementia and now terminal cancer so I’ve been helping my mom” he says. “My mom and I basically created a space in the garage. I would work from about 6 at night until 3am, and then on weekends I had my kids. I hadn’t really settled on any kind of direction for the album, then I wrote Selling You My Heart and it went from there.”
Moving Walls is the sound of someone diving deep and holding nothing back- how many artists dare to do that? It’s one of the heaviest records emotionally I’ve heard in some time, and it sounds handsome too… just make sure you hide the guns and sharp objects. www.matthewgood.org
KEY CUTS: Selling You My Heart, Sicily, Boobytrapped
IF YOU ONLY KNEW Darker Half (Massacre Records) ****+
Melodic power metal from Australia. If You Only Knew, Darker Half’s 4th album, centers on themes of isolation with a muscular attack that rivals early Iron Maiden. I’m liking this one a whole bunch.
Not familiar with the musicians here, but singer/ guitarist Vo Simpson sounds like Stryper’s Michael Sweet. Produced by drummer Dominic Simpson, If You Only Knew has the physical power of someone swinging a twenty pound sledge hammer. From high speed galloping ala Maiden to mid-tempo rifftaculars like Into The Shadows and something that starts slow and moody like the title track, which builds naturally to a crescendo for the chorus we have heavier, faster, slower and more accessible music, more metal, less metal, both catchier and more progressive than previous releases. On Sedentary Pain they even mix in death metal-style vocals, which makes the song more powerful- and I’m not a death metal guy. This willingness to not stand in one spot for very long makes If You Only Knew good, possibly even great hard rock.
The two other guys in Darker Half are bassist Simon Hamilton and guitarist Daniel Packovski. I’m feeling parallels to Black Sabbath here- maybe not as sludgy, but heavy, adventurous and full of melodic purpose. The guys all like a wide range of music, so to pull from that and forge a distinctive style here is quite an accomplishment. They’ve managed to get pretty damn close to maximum heaviosity with the fleet fingered soloing of Simpson and Packovski as impressive icing on this metal cake.
My love of metallic rock & roll starts with a great riff, and Darker Half crank them out all over the place here, particularly on tracks like The Bittersweet Caress. If You Only Knew is a record bristling with muscle-bound songs, the kind that make you want to jump in the car and head out for an epic road trip. Heavy, hard, melodic, inspiring, sometimes even thrilling; that’s this record in a nutshell. It comes out later this month. www.darkerhalf.com
KEY CUTS: Glass Coloured Rose, Sedentary Pain, The Bittersweet Caress
PROVE IT ON ME Rory Block (Stony Plain) *****
This is the second release in Rory’s “Power Women Of The Blues” series, following 2018’s A Woman’s Soul, her tribute to Bessie Smith. This six-time Blues Music Award winner is bound to collect more hardware for Prove It On Me– it’s excellent.
Though she’s been making records since 1967, I didn’t find her music until 2008’s Blues Walkin’ Like A Man: A Tribute To Son House, which was the beginning of a tribute series to blues heroes she had actually encountered and sometimes made music with. To my ears and soul those six albums proved Rory to not only be a fine singer and acoustic guitarist, but a gifted interpreter of country blues too. As mentioned above, Prove It On Me is the second installment in her new series. “With this new recording I decided to celebrate some of the great female artists who were not as well known as Bessie Smith” she says, “with the obvious exception of Ma Rainie and Memphis Minnie. My goal with Prove It On Me was to bring to light some of these great talents who, for whatever reason, did not become as famous.”
Like many of the 35 albums that have come before this, Prove It On Me is beautiful in its simplicity… tasty finger picking, expressive slide, and some light percussion to help flesh out the songs. As with her previous Stony Plain releases, the liner notes for Block’s new album are quite informative. As she often does Rory has also included an original song here, Eagles, unassumingly placing herself in the company of the talented singers and songwriters behind the other tracks on the disc. “The words to Eagles are directly from my life” she says.
If you’re familiar with any of Rory Block’s work from the last 12 years in particular, you’re going to love this album as much as I do. Even over and above her recorded works, Rory’s attitude really strikes a chord with me. “I always have to be surrounded with music to feel the energy I need to live” she notes. “I mean, it’s energy , it’s spirituality. I live and breathe music.” I know what she means. Street date; March 27th. www.roryblock.com
KEY CUTS: Eagles, In My Girlish Days, Motherless Child
YOU AIN’T DONE The Proven Ones (Gulf Coast Records) *****+
Rock & roll has super groups, so does the blues. The Proven Ones are guitarist Kid Ramos, singer Brian Templeton, keyboardist Anthony Geraci, bassist Willie J. Campbell and drummer Jimi Bott. Between the five of them they’ve won dozens of awards, been on hundreds of recordings and logged thousands of miles on the road. All that work, all that mojo culminates on You Ain’t Done, their sophomore release; a muscular blues, rock ‘n’ soul workout that has to be heard and felt to be believed. Street date is April 17th.
This new album expands the palette cast by their debut, Wild Again. “We wanted to stretch the boundaries for this record” says singer Brian Templeton. “For the most part we are all known as blues musicians, and rightly so, but we love many styles and naturally wanted to indulge them as well. I think we accomplished that on this record. There’s rock, soul, country, some Latin influence, a bit of pop, and dare I say a punk vibe as well.” All of these ingredients are mixed together proportionately and the outcome is a well balanced and rollicking, soulful good time.
You Ain’t Done was produced, mixed and engineered by drummer Jimi Bott and co-produced by Mike Zito. Recording took place in Louisiana, Oregon and Massachusetts. There are times it feels and sounds like The Allman Brothers meets The Marshall Tucker Band, then there are songs like Nothing Left To Give that sounds like it could’ve come from a Santana record. There’s a down and dirty adventurous musical spirit and early 70’s Stones vibe at play when these five guys get together that makes every turn almost unexpected and yet very welcome. A mixing of genres and influences aside, one thing about You Ain’t Done that can be stated as absolute truth; it’s got tons of swagger.
The Proven Ones aren’t gunning for a hit record, just writing and play music that really excites them which, in turn, makes You Ain’t Done a musical adventure of the highest order. I can’t wait for you to hear this one. www.theprovenones.com
KEY CUTS: Already Gone, Get Love Intro/ Get Love, Favorite Dress
DEADRISEN DeadRisen (AFM) ****
From the east coast Tri-State area, here comes a metal band that embraces many styles within the genre, pushing it to the next level. A mix of older, seasoned musicians and young hungry guys, Deadrisen is a bridge between classic and modern styles that can rock even an old fart like me.
Included in the group are Symphony X bassist Mike Lepond and guitarist Rod Rivera from Christian metal legends Rivera/ Bomma. It’s drummer Dan Prestup that keeps the group in precise lockstep, but I daresay it’s Rivera’s guitar work that lifts this above being ‘just another metal record’. As the son of a flamenco guitarist, Rod combines his father’s Latin guitar influence with a hard rock/ metal approach, resulting in a totally original approach. The sparing use of acoustic flamenco interludes is actually pretty cool, not unlike the reggae breakdown Rush used in The Spirit of Radio. Of course keyboardist Tony Stahl and singer Will Shaw have plenty to say about the direction of the band too. Stahl’s textures really flesh out and broaden the sound of the band, and Shaw is a solid rock shouter who takes the songs where they need to go.
“I have been lucky enough to play on some of the best metal albums ever made” says bassist Mike Lepond. “(This album) has everything you need for a great record. Each song stands proudly on its own with heavy metal purity.” I confess to not being familiar with the work of any of these guys individually, but together as DeadRisen the sound they make as a unit is fierce, driven and unrelenting. It’s hard and forceful yet not obnoxious, loaded with plenty of sinewy riffs to pick you up and get you going.
DeadRisen, the album and the band, are about as rock & roll as rock & roll can get. Today’s musical landscape is crowded with more genres than the bible has pages, and some might think that hard rock is passé… DeadRisen would like to have a word with you. This is a record that grabs you by the nuts and when you get it, you’ll thank these guys for helping you see the light. www.afm-records.de
KEY CUTS: Prophecy, Reach For The Sun, Chains Of Time
TRAVELING MAN Watermelon Slim (Northernblues Music) *****+
You’re not going to come across a more authentic blues experience than this new double disc live album from Watermelon Slim. Traveling Man is a stunning mix of classic and original blues; just the man himself with harmonica and guitar. Putting this on reminds me of the first time I heard Son House’s Death Letter– it’s spellbinding.
Born in Boston as William Homans III to a blueblood family Slim, now 70, was five when he got his first dose of the blues when the family maid would sing him John Lee Hooker songs. He decided early on that he was going to pursue his own path in life- the blues- rejecting the career aspirations his family had for him. Slim spent some time in the army and in a hospital in Vietnam, where he learned to play slide guitar by listening to Mississippi Fred McDowell records and trying to replicate the sounds he was hearing on a balsa wood guitar, using a Zippo lighter as a slide. This is a guy that Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records called “a one-of-a-kind pickin’ ‘n’ singin’ Okie dynamo” and by God Jerry was the kind of guy that knew what he was talking about.
Traveling Man is Watermelon Slim’s 9th album for this label and 14th overall. Disc one was recorded September 24th 2016 at The Blue Door in Oklahoma City while disc two was captured February 28th, 2016 at the depot in Norman, Oklahoma. On each disc Slim settles into a groove easily and early on, quite comfortable in spinning his blues tales before what sounds like a rapt and fairly intimate crowd. I can’t imagine stuff like this working in a hockey rink; you gotta be in a shitty little joint like the legendary Yale Hotel in Vancouver (now closed) to absorb the gig and feel its full and natural effect. I’ve never been to Oklahoma, but Traveling Man takes me there.
Bare, intimate and emotional, Traveling Man is as blue as blues can be, and I’m loving it. Street date for this subtly stunning set is March 27th. www.watermelonslim.com
KEY CUTS- DISC ONE: Jimmy Bell, Blue Freightliner, Northern Blues
DISC TWO: Let It Be In Memphis, John Henry, Devil’s Cadillac
AFTERGLOW Mike Mattison (Landslide Records) *** ½
How surprisingly little I know about Mike Mattison makes this album a wonderful discovery. One half of the blues duo Scrapomatic, Mike is also lead singer for The Derek Trucks Band and appears regularly with the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Afterglow is a disarming, engaging mix of blues, Americana and country with a touch of soul.
Afterglow is a startling array of original material, co-produced by Mike and Tyler Greenwell from the TTB, who plays drums. “(The album) is really the result of the three of us, (guitarist) Dave Yoke, (drummer/ engineer) ‘Falcon’ Greenwell and myself on acoustic guitar, tracking live in Falcon’s garage, and adding the bass later” Mattison says. “So it’s a throwback recording in a way, a nod to our garage band days; loose and louche. We were lucky to have Jason Kingsland’s hand on the final mix. He has the perfect touch.” On songs like Charlie Idaho it feels like this disc has some real cowboy soul.
“The title track is pretty emblematic of the album” Mike explains. “It’s a story about memory and moving on, which is the topic of most of these songs; how to avoid being trapped by a memory, by the past.” That’s a lesson most of us could stand to learn, I bet. Charlie Idaho is based on a chillingly true story from Alan Lomax’s book, The Land Where The Blues Began, about a levee camp boss who murdered a ‘mercy man’ sent by the government to make sure that the mules in his camp weren’t being mistreated. What all of this boils down to is that this album is 40 or so minutes of great storytelling.
If you’re familiar with the Tedeschi Trucks Band then you’ll be right at home with what’s going on here. Add a touch of Blue Rodeo-style twang ‘n’ soul to that and you’ve got the whole package. While I’m sure Mattison is pleased with his ‘day job’, Afterglow goes a long ways to establishing him as a solo star in his own right too. He’s not there yet, but definitely on his way. As Mike himself notes, a major goal still remains; “I would like to grow up to be Dr. John, the Night Tripper.” He’ll make it too. This one comes out March 20th. www.mikemattison.com
KEY CUTS: Charlie Idaho, Kiss You Where You Live, Word’s Coming Down
CHANGE THE WORLD Harem Scarem (Frontiers) *** ½
If you include the re-recording of the Mood Swings album (Mood Swings II) this is the 16th album from these Canadian melodic rockers since their self-titled 1991 debut. Change The World is middle of the road hard rock, the sound of the world as it once was.
Harem Scarem were active from 1987 until 2008 then, after a five year hiatus, reconvened in 2013 and have released 4 albums since, including the aforementioned Mood Swings II. When you hear the phrase “they’re big in Japan”, it certainly applied to these guys. Still leading the band in 2020 are singer Harry Hess and guitarist Pete Lesperance. “We really only have one goal when we start working on a record and that is to try and write the best songs we can” Pete says. “I think we’ve finally found our stride (I should hope so after 30 years of being a band) and we just try to keep ourselves happy musically, but deliver something that we feel the fans will like.” Not a bad rule of thumb.
Change The World is very much the kind of melodic hard rock that grunge came along and boot-fucked in the early 90’s. Strong and catchy riffing here, Lesperance turns in some great solos and Hess has a strong rock voice built for this kind of material- somewhat similar to Chad Kroeger, just kind of the same general feel. ‘Unique’ is not a word I would use to describe their sound, but I have no trouble throwing this collection of fist–pumpers on loud enough for the widow next door to enjoy too.
Despite the title, don’t expect this album to change the world. These are well thought out and executed rock tunes that feature some fine singing and playing that prize melody over muscle. A friend of mine is a huge fan and when I told him I had the new album he said “Harem Scarem never disappoints” and, depending on what you expect from a record, that may very well be true. While I don’t see Change The World being a chart-stomping planet killer of an album, I am very much enjoying it; isn’t that the point? www.haremscarem.net
KEY CUTS: The Death Of Me, Swallowed By The Machine, Change The World
IN A ROOMFUL OF BLUES Roomful of Blues (Alligator) *****
Roomful has been at it for over 50 years and their first album of new music since 2011 is pure sonic joy. Blues Music Magazine calls In A Roomful of Blues “jubilant, jazzy R&B… boisterous, horn-propelled magnificence… infectiously joyous spirit.” Truer words have never been spoken.
Roomful was started in Rhode Island in 1967 by Duke Robillard amongst others, has been led by guitarist Chris Vachon for the last 22 years and has earned the title of ‘best little big band in the blues’ many times over. A mix of 9 originals and 4 covers, In A Roomful of Blues is one of the most fun albums you’ll hear this year. Its combination of superior musicianship, tight production and the right songs are what make it so magnificent. “We always keep things fresh and we keep the excitement level high” says Vachon. “Playing this music is an immense amount of fun for us, and it’s just as much fun for our audience.” Changing lineups aside (more than 50 members over the years) you can be forgiven for thinking a band that’s been around this long might be coasting by now, but such fatigue and creative rot is not in Roomful’s DNA. When they play they lean into it, and you can literally feel them wanting us to come along for the ride.
Too many band members (eight) to note individually here, but that is not to diminish their contributions to this frankly amazing record. In A Roomful Of Blues was engineered, produced and mixed by guitarist Chris Vachon mainly at PM Studios in Rhode Island, with additional recording in Connecticut engineered by Evan Bakke and Pat Smith. Other than a little slap-back echo on a song like Watch Your Back there isn’t much for detectable control board trickery going on. This is the sound of 8 master musicians getting the right songs together and pouncing on them with gleeful intent.
Ranging from jump, swing and proto-rock to funky, contemporary blues, In A Roomful Of Blues is one of those albums that belongs in every single blues fan’s collection. www.roomful.com
KEY CUTS: Phone Zombies, She’s Too Much, Too Much Boogie