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YOU WANT IT DARKER Leonard Cohen (Columbia) *****“If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game/ if you are the healer it means I’m broken and lame”. So begins Cohen’s final album, released weeks before his death and capping off a spectacular late career run.  You Want It Darker is his goodbye, so it seems fitting that it has been critically well received, and that Leonard himself felt it one of his best records.I’m enamoured of Cohen’s last 2 albums, 2014’s Popular Problems and 2012’s Old Ideas and so was already planning to review You Want It Darker, not expecting to examine it in the shadow of his death. The cancer that would soon claim him was already eating him alive when this was recorded, so these songs of death and God informed by his dark wit make perfect sense- it feels right as his final wordHow does You Want It Darker sound?  Like a Leonard Cohen album- and you’ll like it or not based on that.  His low rumbling bass voice- one can hardly call it singing, it’s a ‘vocal style’- is hypnotic, drawing you in to a place where his poetry moves through you on a molecular level.  It’s not unlike the effect Robbie Robertson records like Storyville have- on both of these, the vocals pull me past the point of merely ‘listening to a song’  to being right in the middle of the stories themselves.Like his few records You Want It Darker is impeccably produced by Patrick Leonard, but then Cohen always surrounded himself with great talent including his son Adam Cohen, who plays classical guitar here.  Like Tom Waits or Lou Reed Cohen’s voice is an acquired taste, but much earthier on this disc than his early stuff.  As his final word on mortality and letting go, You Want It Darker is as deep as it gets- all the more meaningful in the shadow of death.  This one will stay very close to my heart.

ESSENTIALS:  You Want It Darker, Leaving The Table, Traveling Light


HARDWIRED… TO SELF DESTRUCT Metallica (Blackened/ Warner) *****Back in the 70’s, it wasn’t unusual for a band like Kiss to release 3 records inside of a year.  But these are different times, and Metallica is a very different band.  Death Magnetic came out 8 years ago, and the new record is finally here.  Hard as steel and tough as nails, Hardwired… To Self Destruct is worth every second of the wait, easily their best since 1991’s Black album.  Yeah- it’s THAT good.Hardwired has been in the works for a few years now, and I admit to wondering during that time if anybody actually gave a rat’s ass about a new Metallica disc.  I was surprised to note that this is only their tenth album, but it sums up their history quite well- the energetic early stuff, the polish of the Load records, and the brute force of Death Magnetic.  Not hearing any hangovers from St. Anger, though- whew!This was produced by Greg Fidelman, one of the engineers on Magnetic, along with Hetfield and Ulrich.  Hardwired is punishing in the very best possible ways, recalling their stuff with Bob Rock.  Full of stomping, heavy grooves, I wouldn’t call this a thrash record, it’s more doom sludge than anything.  This is one of the thickest sounding sets I’m heard in awhile, we’re talking black hole density here.  With it having been 8 years since the last full length album, Nothing less than the biggest, baddest, heaviest sounding album would do here, and they’ve hit the bulls eye.You might be surprised to find out Kirk Hammett doesn’t have any songs on this record, a first since he joined the band.  In 2014 he lost his phone at the Copenhagen airport, which contained almost 250 riff ideas- which weren’t backed up.  He would have had to start from scratch again, while James and Lars already had loads of ideas for songs.Hardwired… To Self Destruct is two discs and clocks in around 80 minutes overall, with most songs being in the six to eight minute range, though the title cut is just 3:09.  In listening to this record tonight, 2 days before release as I write, I get the feeling that James, Lars, Kirk and Robert knew that “crushingly spectacular” was their mission, and by God that is EXACTLY what they’ve given us.

ESSENTIALS:  Now That We’re Dead, Atlas Rise, Halo On Fire


SEEING IS BELIEVING Sugar Ray & The Bluetones (Severn) *** ½ This is the 7th album for these guys, and they’re doing what they do best- playing traditional blues.  On Seeing Is Believing, they’re not reinventing the wheel- just playing the music with passion and commitment, and boy does it show.“We do this to have fun” says band leader Sugar Ray Norcia. “Every time we go into the studio or out on a road trip or onstage, we always say ‘let’s have some fun”.  That much is evident on the new record, and if you listen to it close enough to feel the music, you’ll get a contact high.  It’s a disc that pays tribute in spirit to everyone from Muddy Waters, Otis Spann and Little Walter to Louis Jordan and Louis Armstrong.  Various members of the band wrote 11 of these songs, and their rendition of BB King’s You Know I Love You is not to be missed.The Bluetones have been together for 35 years and, at 16 years’ service, guitarist “Monster” Mike Welch is ‘the new guy’.  As you would expect from a band that’s been together that long, the playing on Seeing Is Believing is telepathic.  “(We) want to play this music right to pay homage to it” Sugar Ray states. “This unity of musical vision and ability is what sets us apart.”  Just one listen you’ll be saying “Yeah- they nailed it.”

ESSENTIALS:  To Know Me Is To Love Me, Sweet Baby, Blind Date


DARK ANGEL John Weeks Band (independent) ****This is the second record for this Colorado based blues band, loaded with serious groove and swing to keep you moving, one of those discs that you ‘get’ right away.This is good old American blues with an international passport.  Weeks was born in France, honing his guitar chops on the French club scene, while Dallas-born Danny Haynes (keyboards) cut his teeth on the Austin scene before splitting for Australia in the 90’s.  The band is rounded out by singer Stacey Turpenoff (St. Louis), bassist Stephen Whitfield (Ohio) and drummer Robert Fiorino out of New York.  Despite being from different locales, they sound like they grew up together playing this stuff- these cats is tight!The grind of the opening cut The Hole grabbed my attention right away, but the way they keep throwing change-ups is a real treat.  Dark Angel is quite traditional blues and the ballads are juicy, particularly How Can You Love Me? Which showcases Haynes’s blues piano playing skills- the intro in particular is the very definition of ‘tickling the ivories’.The musicianship on Dark Angel is impressive- not in a weedly-weedly way, but in that everyone gives the songs exactly what they need, tasty playing but no showboating.  And when Turpenoff sings, you know she feels every word that comes out of her mouth- the way she lays her heart on the line is impressive. These are some sweet blues indeed.

ESSENTIALS:  How Can You Love Me?, The Hole, Dark Angel


MAKE SOME NOISE The Dead Daisies (SPV) *****What the…?!? It feels like I’ve just been by a truck!  This is DD’s 3rd album since exploding onto the scene in 2013, and proof that Gene Simmons is full of shit- rock is most certainly not dead.Every once in while an album comes along that just sounds like a good time, and Make Some Noise is that disc.  Influenced by 70’s and early 80’s rock, you’ll hear elements of Kiss, Skynyrd, AC/DC, Priest, and Bad Company in The Dead Daisies’ music.  The riffs are big, muscular, and catchy as all hell, and they make me feel like I’m in my twenties again.  It’s a greasy, irresistible noise, made mainly for carnivores, with a rock & roll spirit that’s all too rare these days.Produced by Marti Frederiksen, Make Some Noise lives up to its name with dense sonics, giving the songs physical dimension, hard and punishing in all the right places to make you feel good.  If anyone asks “what should rock & roll sound like?” this is the record you need to put on for them.I’m fighting the urge to over-analyze this- if classic guitar driven rock gets your motor runnin’, I can’t imagine another album out in the last few years that’ll blow as much wind up your skirt as this one.   This much swagger and attitude on a single album should be illegal.

ESSENTIALS:  Last Time I Saw The Sun, Join Together (the Who song), Long Way To Go

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