CARRY FIRE Robert Plant (Nonesuch/ Warner Bros.) ****
This is Plant’s 11 solo album, and his first since 2014’s delicately magnificent lullaby and… the Ceaseless Roar. Carry Fire continues along the same path of using American folk instrumentation to play altered versions of foreign melodies and global music, and how you feel about this album can likely be predicted by how you felt about lullaby and Band Of Joy. If you dug those I know you’re gonna like this; but if they bored you, and I know they did some, Carry Fire will likely bore you too.
Carry Fire was produced by Plant, and once again he is accompanied by his band The Sensational Space Shifters. It’s hard to compare this stuff to anything else because I’m not sure anyone else in popular music is looking in the same corners as Robert. Of the music he’s making now, Plant says “It’s about intention. I respect and relish my past works, but each time I feel the trawl to and incentive to create new work. I must mix old with new. Consequently the whole impetus of the band has moved on its axis somewhat, the new sound and different space giving way to exciting and dramatic landscapes of mood, melody and instrumentation.”
How I feel about Carry Fire and the couple of albums that came before it depend on the mood I’m in. If high energy, four-on-the-floor rock & roll is called for, I won’t be reaching for this… but if I’m feeling both expansive and introspective, these songs are the perfect soundtrack. The things I admire most about Robert Plant aside from his voice are his restless creative spirit and disregard for pop conventions. You can feel that he’s making this music because it’s where his muse and curiosity have led him, and that kind of integrity is rare in the music business. It’s also why I applaud his continued refusal to do a Zeppelin tour- the paydays would be unreal, but he couldn’t care less.
Carry Fire is an intriguing blend of folk and psychedelia with an eastern influence, along the lines of what Plant and his band have been doing for a few years now- so consider that when you consider adding this to your collection. I, for one, find it compelling.
KEY CUTS: May Queen, Bones Of Saints, Bluebirds Over The Mountains (with Chrissie Hynde)
SOMETHING LIKE A STORM Matthew Good (Warner Music Canada) ****+
So many albums every year, who can listen to them all? I credit my friend and former workmate Curtis Jenkins for turning me on to Matthew Good with his enthusiasm, which brings me to Good’s 12th album. His songs are never light and fluffy, and Something Like A Storm is one of those records that aims to take on the world.
“The theme of the album is one of foreboding, of the gathering of socially divisive storm clouds, from the perspective of the personal to wider frames of inclusion” Matthew says. Something Like A Storm feels somewhat like a Gord Downie record in its attitude and social consciousness. With the Michael Stipe-ish timbre of Good’s singing voice, it also sounds kind of like a rockin’ R.E.M. record too; not a bad thing a-tall.
Good has been a busy boy in the decades since the release of his first album. He’s sold nearly a million records in Canada alone, and he’s been nominated for no less than 21 Juno Awards, including a Rock Album nomination for his last record Chaotic Neutral. His ongoing battle with mental issues (mania and anxiety, being diagnosed as bi-polar in 2007) inform his lyrics too, both in obvious and oblique ways, prompting a level of honesty and depth that is quite uncommon in pop music. Of the inspiration for this record, he says “the title comes from a demo originally recorded years ago. Given that it was roughly 20 minutes in length and comprised of movements, I’d only written the first five lines of lyrics which are now the first lines on the album. Musically, the song on the album doesn’t include anything from the original demo.”
Throughout Something Like A Storm, as Good examines his stated themes of foreboding and social divisiveness, whether he knows it or not he’s also making a solid argument for the album as a still-relevant art form. These days most people treat music on a song by song basis, almost like fast food (hey, I’m guilty too), but there’s something to be said for taking the time (roughly 43 minutes here) to take a closer look at what’s on your mind. The songs are melodically sophisticated and occasionally quite dramatic; all things considered, this disc is a pretty terrific way to spend your time.
KEY CUTS: Bad Guys Win, Something Like A Storm, She’s Got You Where She Wants You
PLAYS THE BLUES Jimmy Carpenter (Vizz Tone) *** 6/7ths
A collection of blues classics with a couple of originals thrown in is what we have here from New Orleans sax player Jimmy Carpenter. Jimmy Carpenter Plays The Blues follows 2014’s Walk Away- it’s real deal blues, played with feeling and soul, with Jimmy’s sax as the primary lead instrument. I’m not usually a sax guy, but this is pretty heckin’ cool.
“During the long drives on my last tour with Mike Zito & The Wheel, a frequent topic was what should Jimmy do next?” Carpenter says on his website. “You need to make a straight-ahead blues album! That’s what your fans want to hear and I (Mike Zito) want to produce it!” and the result is this swanky collection of tunes. Jimmy says “This is what I’ve always done: play the blues in a small band setting, no frills, no horn section, no background vocals… just me, my horn and my voice.
Produced by guitarist Mike Zito, Jimmy Carpenter Plays The Blues includes some intensely groovy special guests; Tinsley Ellis, Jon Del Toro Richardson, Tony Ditiedoro, Anders Osborne, Lewis Stephens and Dave Keys. Keeping to small band arrangements makes these songs uncluttered and more immediate as they tear through stuff written by Willie Dixon, Magic Sam, Otis Rush and the like, alongside the numbers written and/or co-written by Carpenter. My youngest son Matt used to play sax in high school band, I should send him a copy of this to show him what he could be doing with it.
Every once in awhile it occurs to me that the saxophone is an important instrument in the blues, nearly as expressive as a guitar in the right hands, and this album is one of those moments. Jimmy Carpenter Plays The Blues is a lively, expressive album that is welcome in my CD player anytime.
KEY CUTS: You Belong To Me, Jimmy Plays The Blues, All Your Love (I Miss Your Lovin’)
MOON OVER MONTGOMERY The McKee Brothers (MBE) ****
This is the second release for The McKee Brothers, once again inspired by a talented roster of musicians and singers too big to mention by name. A very enjoyable mix of styles played with jazz smarts, Moon Over Montgomery could, I suppose, just as easily have been called The Groove.
Moon combines gospel, gritty funk, soul, jazz/blues and even rock. Though that might seem like a disparate mix of styles, they all blend well together- especially when you have people like guitarist Larry McCray or J.V. Collier of Bruce Hornsby’s band involved. There’s impressive guitar work from Denis McKee throughout too, Ralph McKee is a ridiculously smooth bassist and Melissa McKee throws down lead and backing vocals, as do Denis and Ralph.
As Michael G. Nastos of WCBN-FM and Hothouse Magazine says, this disc is “a triumph on several levels. The excellent musicianship with a shared purpose, the top drawer singing of original music, and the excellent leadership and performances of the Brothers themselves lifts the sounds to a very high level.” Moon sounds great, truly inspiring instrumental performances throughout indeed, with the album as a whole a shining example of what it means to be ‘in the pocket’.
Moon Over Montgomery is tight and groovin’ to the point of being almost too ‘shiny’, and I suppose that could be a turnoff for some. On a song like Bayou Man though, the first time through I was enjoying the horn charts- second time I got off on the bass guitar, knowing that if I practiced for another thousand years I STILL wouldn’t play that awesome. A disc like this is easy for musicians to enjoy because the playing is so damn good- the rest of us can just stand back and bask in its awesomeness. 16 tracks does seem almost like too much of a good thing, but I’ll take it anyway.
KEY CUTS: Bayou Man, I Feel Like Dynamite, Blues of The Month Club
EVERYTHING INTERTWINED Tom Savage (Rabid Ear Music) ****+
Here we have the 6th record for this Kingston, Ontario-based troubadour. Melodically the songs are jaunty and strummy pop while the lyrics can get kind of deep and dark- quite the juxtaposition and a perfect storm, you might say.
The songs on Everything Intertwined are pleasing to the ear, even a ragged rocker like Mean To Me, but what makes them truly beautiful are Savage’s lyrics. As you listen you’ll feel the influence of Townes Van Zandt, Springsteen, even Neil Young and Bob Dylan in that regard… pieces of everyday life that feel like they’re pages from his past, regardless of whether they’re just stories or not. And yes everything IS entwined; every piece of your existence touches every other part in some way, whether the connections seem obvious or not.
At this stage of my own journey I find Tom Savage’s explorations of love, life, heartbreak and the fast approaching void to be particularly relevant. 17 Years could’ve easily been a Neil Young & Crazy Horse rocker, and the meditative Cold But Free that ends off Everything Intertwined (Just Tom’s voice and some gently strummed electric guitar before the bass and drums roll in) has a ‘what does it all mean’ vibe that is the perfect way to end such an introspective journey.
Savage’s band also includes Tony Silvestri on keys, Seamus Cowan on bass and backing vocals, and drummer Bonz Bowering, who coined the term “though rock” for Savage’s music. Tom Savage has been influenced from all directions and it shows in his music- maybe that’s what makes Everything Intertwined feel like such a complete experience. Nobody is just one thing, and Tom’s not afraid to show that side of himself.
KEY CUTS: Burnt By The Sun, Everything Intertwined, Cold But Free
DREAM TRAIN Alastair Greene (Rip Cat Records) *****
If you’re in the mood for real hard-ass blues, something to get the blood up, have I got an album for you! Alastair Greene’s Dream Train is like the second coming of Gary Moore- tough, emotional and evocative guitar playing and some cool tunes, coming from a blues/ southern rock/ jam band sensibility.
This band is a trio- Alastair singin’ and playin’ in front of bassist Jim Rankin and drummer Austin Beede on a bunch of swaggering, knuckle-dragging blues rockers that nearly set my music room on fire today. Special guests include Walter Trout, Debbie Davies and Mike Zito on guitars, Mike Finnegan on organ and Dennis Gruenling on harmonica. Oh to have been a fly on the wall when Greene and his guitar slinging guests pushed and cajoled each other onto higher heights! From the high octane title track to the decidedly Curtis Mayfield-like instrumental Iowa, there are plenty of ya-ya’s to be had.
Alastair Greene has been thrilling audiences in various bands for a couple of decades, recently stepping out for a solo career after 7 years with Alan Parsons. “I’ll always be grateful for the opportunity Alan gave me to handle guitar and vocal duties in his band. It was an honor to play the music (he) created. After 7 years, the time had come for me to truly pursue my own musical dream” Greene says. Dream Train is a nasty, greasy blues fever dream full of great playing on 12 originals plus a previously unreleased Billy Gibbons song Nome Zayne, recorded with the ZZ Top guitarist’s blessing.
In a world and a time where musical heroes can be hard to find, Alastair Greene’s Dream Train is the real deal. Blues In Britain praises this disc as “a meld of Cream, Johnny Winter, North Mississippi Allstars, Jimi Hendrix and Santana” and they’re absolutely right. This runaway diesel locomotive is a solid contender for Album of The Year.
KEY CUTS: Dream Train, Nome Zayne, Iowa, Rain Stomp