Music Reviews by the Rock Doctor – Friday Nov 20-2020

Whitesnake (Rhino) ****

David Coverdale is a crafty bugger.  Love Songs is the second record in a trilogy highlighting the band’s career.  Like The Rock Album released back in June this is, as Coverdale says, a batch of “revisited, remixed and re-mastered” songs from the band’s back catalog.  He says some songs “have been musically embellished where my co-producer Michael McIntyre, my new mixer Christopher Collier and I felt it appropriate or necessary to bring out the best in these songs”, and therein lay the craftiness.  You’ve heard many of these songs before… but not quite like this.

Like the Rock Album, spinning this was a journey of discovery for me, being familiar with maybe half of the material.  Though I have many of their studio discs and a couple of live sets, my knowledge of their music past the hits is superficial.  Why would any fan want Love Songs if most of the tunes are already in their collection?  A number of the songs have been ‘musically embellished’ (see above) so they sound different, more present than the originally sourced numbers.  We have a pile of songs from various albums that have been remixed to sound as if they belong on the same record, which is cool.  You’d be hard pressed to find a band who, in listening to their older material, doesn’t want to change something.  Well, David has done it.  PLUS- Love Songs also includes 3 previously unreleased numbers recorded for David’s Y2K solo record Into The Light; With All Of My Heart, Yours For The Asking and Let’s Talk It Over.

Love Songs is a great sounding record but I find an album of love songs (ahem) fatiguing.  Yes there is up-tempo stuff here like Love Will Set You Free, but for my money The Rock Album is a superior set and way more fun to drive to.  Still, a tip of the hat to Coverdale and his people for a job well done.  This is a worthy companion to The Rock Album, and I can’t wait for The Blues Album expected sometime next year.  These sets are essential.

KEY CUTS:  The Deeper The Love, Too Many Tears, Summer Rain

MEET ME IN THE MIDDLE Erin Harpe featuring Jim Countryman (Vizztone) ****+

If you’re a fan of great acoustic finger picking, Erin Harpe’s new record will do right by you.  Meet Me In The Middle is her 7th self produced album, recorded in Erin’s home studio, engineered by her husband Jim Countryman.  Containing 4 new originals and 6 traditional blues classics, this disc is good fun.

It’ll be interesting in a few years to re-visit albums recorded and released during the pandemic to see how they hold up, and I’m betting Meet Me In The Middle will float to the top.  The album is just Erin’s voice, some fine guitar playing (as well as kazoo and some foot percussion), with ukulele bass and occasional backing vocals from Jim.   A quick note on the inside sleeve says “recorded in June 2020 while quarantined in our 3rd floor apartment in Jamaica Plain, MA.”  The risk with an album this stark is there’s nowhere to hide and you can’t pretty it up with slick production techniques and gadgets.  You’d better have some pretty great songs, and Harpe has 10 of ‘em.

The sonic sparseness of Meet Me In The Middle and the heart of the songs gives this a kind of ‘Cold Mountain’ feel, but more blues than bluegrass-y.  I find that with acoustic records like this, less is more.  As a singer Erin is not unlike Maria Muldaur (an artist I mention often, I know), whether she’s singing her own songs or stuff that she’s pulled from Sippie Wallace or Memphis Minnie.  In fact, without consulting the credits on the back cover I wouldn’t have been able to tell her songs from what she got from Sippie or Minnie, not to mention the other traditional numbers included too.

With Meet Me In The Middle, Erin and her husband are self-healing themselves through these tough times with the power of music.  The minute you pop this into your CD player or pull it up on your Spotify or I Tunes, you’ll be feeling those warm vibes too.  A gentle, unassuming record with restorative powers here… use, and enjoy.

KEY CUTS:  Hard Luck Woman, When I Lay My Burden Down, One Fine Day

IF YOU DON’T KNOW BY NOW Casey James (independent) *****

This is the 3rd album from 2010 American Idol finalist Casey James, and I’m willing to bet it will shock some, especially those that think they have him dialed in. If You Know By Now, produced by Tom Hambridge (George Thorogood, Buddy Guy), is a muscular exercise in funk, soul and blues that just never ever lets you down.

There are few artists that make it out of the American Idol experience with anything resembling a career.  For every Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood there are a dozen Taylor Hickses and Ruben Studdards.  I totally get that; winning a TV singing competition instead of slugging it out in the clubs like everyone else seems like a short-cut, a cheat.  Casey James came out of his 3rd place 2010 Idol finish with a contract with Sony to make country records, but was released from the label before his second album could come out.  It looked like he would be the latest victim of the Idol curse.

I never heard that country album, but in 2017 he released Strip It Down and it got my attention.  In reviewing the record in October of that year, I said it was “the opposite of what I expected.  Far from being some turgid, over-produced pop confection, Strip is a lively blues outing powered by James’ smoky vocals and his wonderfully lyrical guitar playing.” I still believe that today, and If You Don’t Know By Now has progressed beyond that disc by leaps and bounds.  “I’ve grown as a human being” Casey says. “My perception and understanding of what can and can’t be has changed. And I’ve allowed myself to live outside of the very small box that I had built for myself.”

At it’s core If You Don’t Know By Now is the blues- it’s the music Casey loves best- but it’s also one of the most soulful discs you’ll hear, thanks to his rugged singing and expressive guitar playing, particularly in the hands of a producer like Hambridge- who was also at the mixing desk for Strip It Down.  The new record is evocative and the music almost visual, with each tune inspiring different feelings.  “We need to remind humanity what music is about” Casey says. “It’s not about money. It’s not about fame. At the end of the day you can remove all that, take away technology, take away marketing, but the music will remain… it’s unkillable.”   That goes doubly for this album; James has really nailed it this time.

KEY CUTS:  Shake Some Salt, Come On Saturday Night, Faith

UNDER A MISTLETOE SKY Tom Mason (independent) *** ½

This is Mason’s 7th album overall and his 3rd holiday release, following 2003’s A Slide Guitar Christmas and A Pirate’s Christmas in 2013.  Under A Mistletoe Sky is 10 original yuletide-themed tunes, with enough honky tonk country charm and just a touch of bluesy grease to make it a fun and worthwhile addition to anyone’s holiday playlist.

Originally from Minnesota Mason now calls Nashville home.  A six week tour of the UK this past Spring was scrapped of course, some acting opportunities evaporated too, so Tom turned his energy to making joyful holiday music.  When the corn started getting high and America started taking precautions (or not) against the pandemic, he put on a mask and drove from Indiana to Nashville to bring Under A Mistletoe Sky home.

Though I mention country off the top and this album being finished in Nashville might give you one impression, the unexpectedly delightful surprise with Under A Mistletoe Sky is its stylistic breadth.  Santa Says Keep It Cool is rather jazzy, the title cut has a Kentucky Headhunters/ Stones feel to it, Christmas Boogaloo is a soulful rumba and there are playful rockabilly tracks like Gift Wrapped Girl and Little Elvis, King Of The Elves.  In some of the songs like the title cut, if you listen closely you’ll hear the occasional quote from traditional holiday melodies as well.  This disc is pretty much everything a holiday record should be; upbeat and fun, fun, fun!

Though not as musically aggressive, this album reminds me of David Gogo’s Christmas With The Blues, probably more in spirit than anything.  My Grinch rep aside, I enjoy holiday classics like Bing Crosby’s Merry Christmas and the soundtrack from  A Charlie Brown Christmas, but I also like adding new music to my Christmas folder like the Alligator Records Christmas albums and, more recently, the terrific A Gulf Coast Christmas reviewed just last week.  Music is about celebrating life especially around this time of year, and with the way 2020 has turned out, I think we could all use a little extra cheer.  Under A Mistletoe Sky will put a smile on your face.

KEY CUTS:  Christmas Boogaloo, Under A Mistletoe Sky, Santa Says Keep It Cool

POWER UP AC/DC (Columbia) *** ½

After spending most of 2020 feeling like a pig on roller skates it’s reassuring to know that  some things never change; like AC/DC. Power Up is their 17th studio album, and it can be argued that it sounds like virtually every other AC/DC record while touching on their early 70’s stuff.  Which is just what I was hoping for- bet you were too.

After the Rock Or Bust tour, it seemed doubtful AC/DC would be back.  Founder Malcolm Young had to sit that one out thanks to an ongoing battle with dementia, Brian Johnson was replaced by Axel Rose for the last 10 dates because of hearing loss, bassist Cliff Williams announced his retirement, and drummer Phil Rudd never even made it out on the road, thanks to a frankly bizarre legal situation. Then there was the death of Malcolm Young, leaving Angus to carry on… or not.

Angus, bless his heart, began ploughing through a mountain of riffs and songs from over the years compiled by him and Mal, stitching together ideas that eventually made up the dozen songs on Power Up.  He reached out to the guys to see if they were up for another go and they all said yes.  Brian’s hearing loss had been addressed, Phil’s legal problems were sorted and Cliff, though citing health reasons when he retired, signed on for the album and has even said he’d be up for the occasional live show.  They convened at Warehouse Studios in Vancouver (they’ve recorded there several times) with producer Brendan O’Brien, and the table was set for an unlikely comeback.

It all starts with the song writing and the tracks on Power Up are credited Angus and Malcolm Young, with the album also serving as a tribute to Mal.  What really makes this album work is a couple of things; the combination of the Young brothers’ writing, and having the extremely groovy rhythm section of Williams and Rudd back in place.  Neither is very fancy and I’d even go as far as to say you wouldn’t have to look very far to find more accomplished players, but there’s a feel when they play together that is as essential to the songs as the riffs.  There is beauty in pliable simplicity, it’s what we all respond to whenever we hear an AC/DC tune.

Many poo-poo Power Up as ‘just another AC/DC record’ while millions of us revel in its primitive rock & roll mojo for the same reason. You’ll find echoes of their past throughout, like the opening riff for Code Red recalling Back In Black.  One of the many things I admire about this record as with most of what they’ve done is they don’t feel the need to fancy things up.  They still sound like the same blokes that came out Australia in the mid 70’s, making the same kind of blue collar hard rock today that they did back then.  That kind of staying power and consistency is impressive.  They’ve never really changed over the years because they never saw the need to.  Power Up is a great sounding rock & roll album, closest Id’s say to Ballbreaker… makes me wish I was still driving my 1980 Firebird.  Nicely done lads, once again.

KEY CUTS:  Kick You When You’re Down, Witch’s Spell, Demon Fire


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