Music Reviews by the Rock Doctor: Sept 2019

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BLUES POWER Jeff Dale & The South Woodlawners (Pro Sho Bidness) ***
Jeff Dale is a man on a mission. With his 6th album in 9 years Jeff and his band, The South Woodlawners are out to spread the gospel of the blues.

After over 40 years of writing and performing original material, Jeff delivers a set of tunes that radiate his hard scrabble beginnings on Chicago’s south side. Blues Power is relatively simple; don’t get too fancy, just tell it like it is. Midwest Record review calls Dale “A Chicago cat that uses that connection to add authenticity to his blues. Dale is really playing from the gut.”

Jeff’s lead guitar lines are quite tasty and the band swings behind him like a mad mother on cuts like Can I Boogie giving us just the right amount of a trashy Westside Chicago sound without getting sloppy- a neat trick if you can manage it, and they can. Where Blues Power comes up short for me is Jeff’s vocals. He’s not a crappy singer, not ‘Ace Frehley bad’, but he’s not great either- average at best. A Better singer might have turned this into a great album but song-wise, there isn’t a weak link amongst these 11 cuts.

If Chicago-style blues rings your bell, Blues Power might just be your jam. I like it- I just wish I liked it more.

KEY CUTS: Good Luck Woman, Stone Cold, Can I Boogie?

TENNESSEE REDEMPTION Tennessee Redemption (Endless Blues Records) *****+
A powerful debut here from an incredibly talented band. Tennessee Redemption is blues based Americana that sticks to your heart like honey.

The band is led by Brandon Santini (lead vocals, harp) and Jeff Jensen (lead vocals, guitar, producer) and, together with guitarist Timo Arthur, bassist Bill Ruffino and drummer David Green, these guys play like they’ve been together forever. The album is 8 originals plus interpretations of Tom Waits’s Come On Up To The House and Little Walter’s Watch Yourself. Many cool vibes here, often at the same time; blues, roots, country, soul, southern rock, it’s an absorbing listen on the very first spin.

TR come across like Sister Hazel, Royal Southern Brotherhood and The Allman Brothers Band but, like any attempt at labeling, that’s limiting. I’m familiar with some of Santini’s work- he’s great harp player- but Jensen and the other guys are mostly unknown to me, and I love getting to listen in as they begin to chart their own course through the world. There’s a ‘bluesness’ to Tennessee Redemption that is immediately inviting, and then the grooves and the soul pull you the rest of the way in… willingly, I might add.

On this disc TD write and play from the heart, and their versions of the Waits and Little Walter tunes tell us where they’re from and where they’re headed. Tennessee Redemption is an awesome record in what has already been a pretty great year.

KEY CUTS: Back To Tennessee, Come On Up To The House, Glad To Be

FEAR INOCULUM Tool (RCA/ Sony) *****+
Fear Inoculum, Tool’s fifth album and first in 13 years, is what the rock landscape needs; a hypnotic beast of a record, called by Spin Magazine “a transcendent return”.

Long the darling of the progressive and alternative metal scene, according to Wikipedia it took Tool 13 years to get Fear Inoculum out because of creative, personal and legal issues. Tool treats us to several sonic adventures that clock in at over 10 minutes… this is one of those records that envelops you and draws you in deeper with each passing minute, like Pink Floyd with heaviosity. I haven’t had a set of songs affect me like this since I grabbed Floyd’s Wish You Were Here Immersion box set in 2011.

There isn’t much these days for psychedelic music, but that’s a fair label for Fear Inoculum. The Tablas and cello on the title track feel quite exotic, and when Maynard’s vocals come in around the 2:00 mark it pushes the whole piece into some sort of fever dream mantra… kind of hard to explain without playing it for you. The rest of the album is just as adventurous in different ways, and reviewers far more of a big deal than I have been getting massive boners trying to describe just how good this record really is.

It’s been 13 years since Tool’s last album, expectations from fans and critics were high, and we’ve been rewarded. When I put the headphones on, Fear Inoculum just picked me up and carried me away… impossible not to love an album with that kind of mojo.

KEY CUTS: Fear Inoculum, 7empest, Culling Voices

IT CAN ALWAYS GET WORSE Jimbo Pap (Fiesta Red Records) ****
Jimbo Pap’s debut represents a modern, updated version of LA’s roots rock legacy. They don’t wear rhinestone bedecked Nudie cowboy suits like The Flying Burrito Brothers did, but the heart of the music is similar- that’s a good thing.

The songs on this disc are honest, relatable tunes about heartaches, tough breaks and city life, with a wry sense of humor. There’s nothing new about the alchemy of country and rock, and this straddles borders, mixing old-school influences with a semi-modern rock world. It Can Always Get Worse might take people a few spins to get a handle on exactly what it is, other than the country overtones. That’s a rare luxury, and fun to unravel.

The name ‘Jimbo Pap’ is an amalgamation of the names of the three principal band members; Jim Bowers, Bo Brannen and Pap Shirock. The album cover is a photo of Bowers’ great grandmother pushing a shopping cart across a rocky desert landscape during the mid-80’s. “It’s a way for us to express gratitude” Bowers says of the album title and cover. “We get used to life’s setbacks; in fact we’ve come to expect them. We carry on, knowing it could be so much worse.”

It Can Always get Worse is a pile of songs that transmit feelings of hopefulness and optimism, even inside admissions of loneliness. The Farmer’s Almanac says there’s a long, cold winter coming; on some of those nights, in front of our fake fireplace, this album is going to be my very best friend- I can feel it.

KEY CUTS: Submission (Nice Pants), Queen Of My Lonely Little World, Yard Sale

WHISPER IN THE WIND Michael Bloom & The Blues Prophecy (Random Acts Media) *****
As blues albums go Whisper In The Wind is everything I like in the genre- grit, grease, casually excellent playing, and buckets of Stones-style attitude. This is great blues.

“Blues is life and life is the blues” Bloom says. One listen to Whisper In The Wind and you’ll realize he means it. From Oakland to Chicago, Michael has been writing and playing the blues most of his life. He’s a Chicago born, classically trained guitarist, and the songs on this album are steeped in the deepest blues traditions; the poetic voices of Robert Johnson and Jimmy Reed, the lyrical lines of BB King and Otis Rush and the rhythms of Muddy Waters and Little Milton can all be felt and heard.

Whisper In The Wind was recorded partly in Chicago and includes 8 originals plus 3 classics that pay homage to Furry Lewis, Johnny Copeland and Robert Johnson. There’s a rough around the edges quality here that makes it feel like a summation of the history of the blues. Five guys are listed on guitar, but I’m betting it’s Mike playing the majority of the leads. He plays with bravado and muscle, and after hearing his work on Johnny Copeland’s Old Man Blues I had to pick my jaw back up off the floor. As a singer he’s not great, but still pretty good, with a timbre that matches the feel of the songs well.

2019 has been a great year for the blues, with Michael Bloom & The Blues Prophecy’s Whisper In The Wind raising the bar for authentic blues yet again.

KEY CUTS: Old Man Blues, Time On My Hands, Brownsville

THE THRILL IS GONE Carolyn Gaines (Polka Dot Records) ***+
Ms. Gaines follows last year’s debut, Beware of My Dog with The Thrill Is Gone, a love letter to blues legends that are mostly no longer with us. It’s sparse, jazzy and intimate.

Having an album with no drums and spare instrumentation, especially blues classics like these, is a daring move that allows space around the notes so you can hear the emotion in Gaines’ voice. The Thrill Is Gone is traditional blues yes, but quite different in its approach. Guests include her uncle Grady Gaines Sr. (Little Richard, Gatemouth Brown, Sam Cooke, Hendrix) on sax and her dad on guitar. Their playing is lyrical and never intrusive, supporting Carolyn’s vocals with finesse and coolness.

The Thrill Is Gone covers songs by Buddy Guy, Ma Rainey, Otis Redding, Billie Holiday, Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, Etta James, Bobby Bland, Robert Johnson and BB King. Carolyn’s voice is full of warmth and expression, and that’s what makes covering these artists in this particular way even possible. Sure I’d prefer hearing her in front a full band and yes it took me a few spins to get inside this one, but her voice won me over as I suspected it would.

The Thrill Is Gone isn’t a party album, it’s a soundtrack for intimate conversation on a rainy Sunday afternoon as you watch the leaves fall. Can you handle that?

KEY CUTS: Damn Right I Got The Blues (Buddy Guy),Hey Joe (Hendrix), Stormy Monday (Bobby Blue Bland)

CAN’T JUDGE A BOOK Ward Hayden & The Outliers (independent) *****
A band changes their name after 12 years then decides to put out an EP of songs that inspired them. This band of Boston-based twangers known formerly as Girls Guns & Glory, have recorded songs here by Chuck Berry, Fountains of Wayne, Nick Lowe and Doc Pomus, alongside a new original, Naturally Crazy. This is really cool.

I’ve never heard of this band in either incarnation and I don’t consider myself a country guy, but I can’t stop listening to Can’t Judge a Book. Rolling Stone describes them as “Modern day Buddy Holly plus Dwight Yoakam divided by The Mavericks… think-y, soulful lyrics paired with a beat you can dance to”, and this EP is easily as much fun as they make it sound. This is real country- not that plastic stuff all over the radio.

Hayden says the name change was on account of deep reflection on his hero Gene Autry and his famous ‘cowboy code’. “We’ve always considered being a cowboy a state of mind” he says. “We wanted to represent our band with a name that describes who we are more accurately.” Can’t Judge A Book isn’t an exercise in irony by a bunch of jaded hipsters- Ward & The Outliers love this music, playing each note with reverence, respect, and a sense of fun. I just can’t get over how much I’m enjoying this.

KEY CUTS: Viva Las Vegas, Naturally Crazy

PRAY THROUGH GRITTED TEETH Leland Sundries (L’Echiquier Records) **** ½
If you’re in the mood for some telecaster twang, this EP is just what you’re looking for. This proudly walks the line between hard country and Americana, and you’ll fall in love.

It seems unlikely, but these sounds were recorded in Brooklyn and Queens before leader Nick Loss-Eaton relocated to Memphis. Pray Through Gritted Teeth is storytelling that recalls Woody Guthrie and the early protest singers of that era, praised by Mojo Magazine as “Scrappy yet ingenious rock poetry”. The songs are vivid aural portraits that will feel familiar to fans of bands like The Velvet Underground or Jonathan Richman, dense in detail as they create scenes you can almost see with your ears.

Nick is most proud of Song For The Girl With The Replacements Tattoo, which he told me “is a mostly true story about someone I’m really worried about. She really did have a tattoo but it wasn’t the band name, it was LET IT BE in bright red; bad-ass!” Another song to note is Lone Prairie, which adapted a 19th century cowboy song to a punk song… you gotta love band that thinks around corners like that! A quick visit to their website reveals that they have more music for us to discover- better get on that.

KEY CUTS: Food Court Blues, Song For The Girl With The Replacements Tattoo, Lone Prairie

IGUANA The Joe Olnick Band (independent) *****
I’ve said before that I have trouble getting into fully instrumental albums, but this is an exception. The Joe Olnick Band’s Iguana is experimental love at first listen.

This is Olnick’s 7th fusion album, a natural progression from his last record, Downtown. On Iguana you’ll hear rock influences from Talking Heads to Pink Floyd to REM and even The Allman Brothers. The band is Olnick on guitars, Jamie Aston on bass and Stew Bradley on drums, and their avante-jam fusion isn’t as egg-headed as you might think. These guys are experts at finding the groove and riding it until the cows come home and, at roughly 20 minutes from front to back it’s a short trip for the bouncy bovines.

The cover for Iguana, drawn by comic book artist Ron Good, features a misunderstood Iguana named Don who, after lots of struggles, ultimately gets his own hot rock to rest upon. “There are parallels of Don’s life with my own career” Joe says. “I’m an artist producing original instrumental work, so it’s a struggle to get my music out there.”

‘Warm and friendly’ isn’t the way one usually describes an instrumental jam album, but that’s exactly what Iguana is and it’s pretty dang sweet.

KEY CUTS: Sticky Floor Nightclub, Don’s Theme, Hot Rocks

RIDE FREE Spirit Family Reunion (independent) ****
Ride Free is SFR’s 3rd album in 10 years and its old American music sound feels familiar and new at the same time- not unlike Steve Earle meets The Band.

According to SFR’s website, a decade ago “they packed a 1988 Chevy van with some old-time instruments and a DIY approach and drove south out of Brooklyn (and) their ragged dedication remains.” Radio airwaves are crammed with highly polished turds, and Ride Free sticks out in a really refreshing way. The band shares their music directly with fans (I got this from Sound Cloud) and they’ve played well-known festivals like Austin City Limits, Newport Folk, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and Stagecoach. The easy brush to paint these guys with is ‘country’, but don’t sell them short.

There’s a roughness to the sound- not bootleg-shitty, but like the mics happened to be on and tape was rolling to capture the magic on a big ol’ back porch somewhere that wouldn’t sound out of place on the Cold Mountain or O Brother Where Art Thou soundtracks. I have no info on the band and their website doesn’t reveal much, not even the band member’s names. I can only suppose this is deliberate, making those of us curious enough to look them up to deal with the music itself.

Ride Free has a casual, old-timey charm that doesn’t try too hard; it’s more of a ‘we sure like playin’ these songs, we hope you enjoy listening to ‘em too’ kind of thing that would feel at home at The Grand Ole Opry. Tres enjoyable.

KEY CUTS: One Way Ticket, When I Get Home, Moon In The Mirror

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