ORIGINS VOL.2 Ace Frehley (I Tunes) ***
Frehley is no stranger to cover songs, with each of his 8 studio records containing at least one. It was no surprise, then, when he released Origins Vol.1 in 2016, but its success turned a few heads. Origins Vol.2, released Sept.18th, follows a similar blueprint, with songs by other artists that inspired Ace in his bar band days as he invites some friends along for the ride to cover well known songs from bands like Humble Pie, Zeppelin and Deep Purple. Some succeed and some fall short, but this is a good time.
Origin s Vol.2 is a dozen rock songs, 10 of which I know very well and so judge them against the originals. Of course Ace isn’t going it alone here; guitarist John 5 appears on a couple of tracks, Lita Ford shares vocals on Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Robin Zander sings lead on Humble Pie’s 30 Days In The Hole, and fellow former Kiss guitarist Bruce Kulick trades licks with Ace on Hendrix’s Manic Depression. All in all this is a more cohesive song selection than Vol.1, and the tracks where he has outside help are more effective. Frehley’s version of Good Times Bad Times is solid musically but his vocals are weak, and I hate the cowbell they used. If anybody here could’ve followed Robert Plant and made it work it would be Robin Zander- should’ve had him sing this one too. However, Ace’s muscular re-tooling of the Kiss nugget She REALLY works.
Ace now has Gene Simmons’ old solo band backing him up, and by and large they nail it. Produced by Frehley, Origins Vol.2 has a thick, righteous mix that lifts most of these songs up. He’s never been a great singer, and in that regard I think his take on The Kinks’ Lola really fails to deliver. Overall though, in spite of some weak spots, this is a decent record- like popping into your favorite bar while some journeyman roadhouse rock band is on stage, grinding out the songs of your youth. Yeah I’d rather hear the originals too, but Ace Frehley with his band and accomplices do them justice more often than not. Grammy-worthy? No. Big fun? You bet. It’ll be interesting to see how this affects his next album of new material, which he has supposedly already started writing.
KEY CUTS: Kicks (Paul Revere & The Raiders), 30 Days In The Hole (with Robin Zander) (Humble Pie), I’m Down (with John 5) (The Beatles)
TEA FOR THE TILLERMAN 2 Yusuf (Universal) ** ½
The original version of this record, released in 1970, is a personal favorite; I want one of its songs, Miles From Nowhere, played at my memorial service. Inspired by the times we live in, Yusuf (Cat Stevens) felt it the right time to re-imagine these songs and re-introduce them. So the question is, then, does Tea For The Tillerman 2 measure up to the original? Almost.
Everything about Tea For The Tillerman 2 is familiar; the same 11 songs in the same running order with updated cover art that features the Tillerman in a spacesuit surrounded by children glued to their cell phones. That says the lyrical messages may be the same, but they’re still applicable in the modern age and are worth hearing again. To merely re-record these songs as close to the originals as possible would have been futile, so Yusuf has infused the melodies and themes with some fresh instrumental approaches. His son Yoriyos was a creative influence and that can be felt; Longer Boats includes a guest spot from rapper Brother Ali and ending in a funk breakdown, and Wild World has been embellished with eastern instrumentation. Where Do The Children Play, the first single, remains as distressingly relevant today as it was in 1970.
Tillerman 2 includes ties to the original, with producer Paul Samwell- Smith and guitarist Alun Davies along for the ride once again. When I consider this side by side with the original version, it’s like looking at the same painting from another angle… I’m hearing and feeling many of the same spiritual elements, and sonically refreshing a 50 year old record is perhaps a good way to draw attention once again to the themes about relationships and the world we live in. If I had a CD player in my car (it’s not even an option anymore, apparently) I’d put both of them back to back on a single disc.
Perhaps most emblematic of what Cat… er, Yusuf is doing here is Father To Son, with the man as he is today singing the father’s vocals and those of the son taken from a 70’s live recording. Comparing the original Tea For The Tillerman to Tea For The Tillerman 2 is folly of course, but if pressed I’d have to say I prefer these songs as sung by that angry young man in 1970. This new version is the same songs sung by a man with a lifetime of experience to inform the words in that familiar voice, and that’s worth hearing too. I think Yusuf is right; the world needs to hear these songs again.
KEY CUTS: Where Do The Children Play, Father & Son, Longer Boats
100 YEARS OF BLUES Elvin Bishop & Charlie Musselwhite (Alligator) ****+
If you’re on the lookout for an authentic, down home, front porch blues experience, look no further. 100 Years Of Blues, the first album length collaboration between two the blues’ mightiest practitioners is raw, rootsy and spirited. Bishop and Musselwhite trade licks and vocals across 9 originals and 3 re-imagined classics, and the results are magic.
100 Years Of Blues features Elvin Bishop and Bob Welsh on guitars and Charlie Musselwhite on harp. What makes this so cool is it has that feeling of “let’s just put up a couple of mics and see what happens”, that flying by the seat of your pants vibe where, if you’re lucky, you catch lightning in a bottle. Elvin has been making records for 51 years and Charlie has some serious mileage too- though 2 years younger he started making records in 1967. Each has driven rough roads and seen hard times, which shows in the passion of their musicianship. They are real deal blues legends with over 100 years’ experience between them, hence the album title. They’ve known each other since the early sixties and recorded as guests on other people’s albums (like John Lee Hooker), but 100 Years is their first full album together. “This is us sitting down to play the music that we love” Charlie says, “and resonating together effortlessly because we’re coming from the same place- on many levels.”
While there’s something to be said for the joyous thunder of a band coming together and letting it all hang out, the intimacy of a record like 100 Years is equally bracing in a totally different way. This feels live off the floor, the guys feeding off each others’ energy and performance- I’d be shocked to learn if that was not the case. This is real pass-the-whiskey-around-and-get-ready-you’re-on-the-mic-next blues, the kind of stuff you could listen to all night, but wouldn’t mind busting out a verse or playing a solo either. It’s music that you want to be a part of in any way you can.
100 Years Of Blues is quite a literal title for this collection; whatever you choose to call it, it is blues magic with serious mojo.
KEY CUTS: Birds Of A Feather, South Side Slide, Midnight Hour Blues
WHITE LIGHTNING Mary Garnett Edwards (independent) **** ½
A hard life lived in the crooks and crannies of human experience have led to Edwards’s new album. White Lightning is hard to pin down to any one thing. This disc touches on rock, blues, folk and outlaw country. If you’re into Lucinda Williams, I believe you’ll find Mary Garnett Edwards’s new album to be worthy company.
Born in Edmonton in1957, Mary wrote her first song at age 10. At age 12 her mom took her down to The Barricade Coffee House in Edmonton to sing and play her original songs. Following a difficult childhood, she moved to Vancouver at a young age to sharpen and work on her craft. Some hard miles to be sure, and they’re evident in the 13 songs that make up this haunted (and haunting) collection. When she sings, it’s with a voice that has lived a couple of lifetimes, like a mixture of Johnny Cash and Janis Joplin with some Mellencamp in the background. These numbers were forged in the fire of hard times yet seasoned with wit and gratitude.
These songs date back a few years. She had done some recording in the 70’s at various Vancouver studios and Robin Spurgin, founder of the Psi recording Studio, encouraged Mary to keep singing. Though he passed away 2013, he had recorded all of her songs in one night for possible future use. When Mary’s husband Doug (also a musician) died in 2016 from cancer, she found those old tracks and began to think that it might be time to sing them again. In 2019 she asked producer Andreas Schuld to help her make an album, which became White Lightning.
Mary’s voice is not that of a pretty songbird, its rough edges take a bit of getting used to- but when she sings of heartbreak and loss you get the feeling she’s really been there. The band on White Lightning handles the pop, rock and country grooves with finesse, seemingly most comfortable on the mid-tempo stuff. Tracks like Face A Reality are haunting in a way that really gets under your skin, Tonight’s The Night is an upbeat romantic number about-what else- falling in love, and Robin’s Song is a much more complicated look at the subject of love.
Ultimately, White Lightning is a record about life from a singer that’s travelled some hard roads that most of us are at least somewhat familiar with. Not joyous pop music yet not that far from it this is an emotionally heavy, introspective set of songs.
KEY CUTS: Robin’s Song, Face A Reality, Play The Game
THE OFFERING Xanthe Alexis (independent) *** ½
I think we can all agree it is a profoundly weird time to be alive. Sometimes we need music that takes us away from the everyday problems we all face… other times, we need music that helps us close in on some of these issues- personal, communal and global- for a more intimate look at what we’re dealing with. Such is The Offering, Xanthe’s 2nd album and an attempt to make sense of things, an intimate journey that aims to heal.
Alexis was just beginning to move into the national scene in the US when Covid said to her (as well as everyone else) “Hey, not so fast.” With her experience as a trauma nurse and single mother of two she was able to keep her feet underneath her and respond to the world we find ourselves in now. She witnessed the profound need for an authentic voice to be heard above the din of confounding politics and more passion in equal doses, which informs the songs on this album. She has a powerful yet ethereal voice informed by her French, Greek and Native American roots. Her childhood was steeped in the mysticism of her blended cultures, giving her a passion and sensitivity for the unseen world of the spirit. She also experienced being treated as an “other” in America.
Recording sessions for The Offering began last year under the direction of Conor Bourgal, who worked closely with Alexis to develop an indie-folk sound that draws as much from indie rock drums sounds as it does from acoustic guitars, giving the record an almost hypnotic quality. This doesn’t sound much like Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water particularly, but I find myself responding emotionally to The Offering in a similar way… feeling the darkness, the heaviness, and yet somehow feeling refreshed for looking directly into the shadows and not allowing them to frighten me.
As The Offering readily demonstrates, Xanthe is a passionate, nurturing force. She continues to work with her mom at their healing centre in Colorado Springs, where she helps others face their substance abuse challenges and grief in all its forms. That is the heart and mind behind these songs, these meditations, on dealing with life and whatever it happens to throw your way. Try pouring yourself a glass of medium dry white wine, turn on that blue (or is it green?) lava lamp in the corner and just get lost for awhile- trust me.
KEY CUTS: Compass, Moon, The Heart Needs Time
THE SYMBOL REMAINS Blue Oyster Cult (Frontiers) *****
This is what Frontiers records have been setting us up for with a series of live albums in the last several months. The Symbol Remains is BOC’s 15th studio record, and their first in nearly two decades. After all that time, it’s pleasantly shocking how much this sounds like classic Blue Oyster Cult. Great musicianship, hooky songs, those voices and the kind of lyrics they’re famous for make this one I will be coming back to repeatedly.
The band formed in 1967 at Stony Brook university on Long Island as Soft White Underbelly, releasing their self titled debut in 1972 awash with great cuts like Cities On Flame With Rock & Roll, said the be inspired by Black Sabbath’s The Wizard. I found the band quite accidentally in 1975 when I picked up the blistering live extravaganza On Your Feet Or On Your Knees because it was a double LP priced like a single record, and I’ve been a fan ever since. BOC is known for hits like Don’t Fear the Reaper, Fire Of Unknown Origin and Godzilla, but their brilliance is revealed when you dive into the deep cuts- often better and more satisfying than the hit singles.
The band that recorded The Symbol Remains is still led by Eric Bloom (lead & backing vocals, guitar, keys) and Buck Dharma (lead & rhythm guitars, lead & backing vocals), and in 2020 the lineup includes Danny Miranda (bass, backing vocals) and Jules Radino on drums. This reminds me, in energy and feel, of 1981’s Fire of Unknown Origin- the high water mark as far as their studio records go. The diversity of songwriting is breathtaking, from the rocking opener That Was Me to the neo country blast Train True. This is the sound of a band making a record for themselves regardless of trends, which is how it should be. It’s like the band is looking back on their catalog and giving the fans a bit of everything they’ve ever loved about BOC.
In 2017, Eric Bloom noted that “it costs money to make a record,(and) the time would be better spent touring than making a record that nobody (is) going to buy.” In a separate interview, Buck said that the then current lineup of the band was so good it would be a shame not to do an album. He was right, and I’m glad they decided to hit the studio, because this is righteous rock & roll. In my experience it’s unusual for a band to come back with new music after such an absence from the studio and have it matter to ANYBODY (just ask Kiss how it went with their last couple of records), but The Symbol Remains is an unlikely dark horse victory for Long Island’s finest that deserves to stand with Agents Of Fortune and Fire Of Unknown Origin and be judged as amongst the best work of their storied career. Yes- it’s THAT good.
KEY CUTS: Tainted Blood, Stand And Fight, The Alchemist
CRAWLING SPIDER: A TRIBUTE TO MIKE MONTGOMERY VOL. 1: THE LA SESSIONS Various Artists (independent) ****
As deeply knowledgeable about music as people like my wife think I am, there’s way more that I don’t know than I do. Crawling Spider is a stunning tribute to a musician I’ve never heard of before. You could say that meant going into this disc with no preconceptions, a good thing. This powerful blues/rock explosion is a knockout.
Mike Montgomery, originally from Oklahoma, was active on the New York scene. Aside from playing in Bloontz, he played keyboards on sessions with Bowie, Lulu and Blood, Sweat & Tears. In 1975 he was approached to replace Ian Hunter in Mott The Hoople. He passed, instead heading to London to take up guitarist Paul Kosoff’s invite to form Back Street Crawler. A year later he did a solo album with friends from Thin Lizzy, BS&T and Meat Loaf’s band, before returning to New York to take on a variety of projects including scoring the film Vice Squad. He also worked with people like Roy Buchanan, Rick Derringer and Johnny Winter before forming his own band Rough House, known for playing a primal mixture of blues, R&B and high octane rock & roll. In 1991 he lost a tough fight with lung cancer.
Executive producer of Crawling Spider is Marlon Montgomery, Mike’s son. The album’s 15 cuts include reinterpretations of songs by Back Street Crawler and Rough Cut. Marlon also hand-picked some favorites from his dad’s catalog, some of which were recorded but never released. “This project (5 years in the making) has been a dream for many years” Marlon says. “(It’s) a labor of love for myself and all those involved.” Just some of those involved include guitarists Bob Kulick, Brain Robertson and Scott Gorham, Teresa James and Omar & The Howlers on vocals, bassist Jimmy Bain and drummer Tony Braunagel. Mike himself sings and plays keys on 6 tunes- no doubt those cherry picked by his son for the album.
Overall I’d call this brawny blues rock. Put it this way; if you dig bands like Free, Skynyrd and Bad Company, you’re really going to enjoy Crawling Spider. Though Mike was a keyboard player, this disc is largely guitar driven rock & roll with a distinct southern flavor. With this album, I’m just beginning to discover Mike Montgomery’s music, and part of the album title is cause for optimism; Vol.1: The LA Sessions, which obviously means there’s more to come. Bring it on, and let’s rock!
KEY CUTS: Rock & Roll Junkie, Pale Fire, Just A Son Of America
HEARTACHE MOTEL David McLachlan (independent) ** ½
This is David’s 8th album since his debut in 2003. He’s a country/ folk artist from Toronto, but the songs on Heartache Motel are prairie poetry. Recorded in his home away from home (Nashville) it’s more country than what they play on the radio.
“This album was recorded in Nashville nearly a year ago” David says. “It’s incredible to think how much has changed since then; for example, I played the last show at The Bluebird before it was closed for the pandemic.” I find McLachlan’s smooth, velvety voice comforting on this dark and chilly night on the prairies, and the overtly emotional and occasionally lyrics too, as they play up to the album title. “I had the title floating around in my head for a long time” McLachlan notes. “When I wrote the song, it became the album title too. From there, it was easy to fill in which songs I wanted on the album.”
Heartache Motel also features contributions from Julian Taylor, who happened to be in Nashville to perform at Americanafest, plus 13-time CCMA nominated singer Lisa Brokop and singer Adam Cunningham, a 4th place finisher on the show The Voice. That town seems to be good for David, so much so he’s thinking of getting a place of his own in the city. “There are just songs floating around in the air” he says. “I find it a very creative environment, and the talent pool is beyond belief.” It’s a pretty good place for a country boy from Toronto to find himself in, to be sure.
Songs like the title track are straight up country while a tune like Let It Flow, even with its pedal steel accents, has more of a dreamy/jazzy uptown vibe with some sweet sax solos throughout. There’s some fine playing on Heartache Motel and I like the overt sentimentality of the songs just fine- hell, with the country music I enjoy that’s a requirement- but while David’s velvety smooth voice is comforting, it does come across a bit ‘plain’. He sounds like Jonathan Richman, the guy that plays the singing narrator in There’s Something About Mary. I don’t not like his voice, but it doesn’t wow me either. Heartache Motel is a friendly bunch of well meaning country tunes that I will enjoy throwing on from time to time- in my music room and on my radio show.
KEY CUTS: Heartache Motel, Where My Heart Will Go, Night Train
STARLIGHT & TALL TALES Bart Ryan (Blackbird Records) ****
Here is the 5th full solo album from this Nashville-based blues guitarist. Equal parts blues, soul and rock & roll, Starlight & Tall Tales is a confident and bold mix of power, intimacy and good old fashioned storytelling.
Ryan describes his new record as “stories told over a bottle of wine under the stars.” His rough and smoky vocal style is remarkably versatile on this record and he has an emotional and expressive playing style, with his lap steel work an unexpected and quite welcome ingredient. His three longtime collaborators are involved too; drummer Jim Evans, bassist Ted Russell Kamp and Mark Kovaly on keys, along with some heavy hitters from the LA and Nashville scenes. Bart is the producer, but mixing engineer Preston Tate White came up with so many great ideas during the sessions that he ended up with a co-producer credit. Cameron Henry put the finishing touches on during mastering.
Starlight & Tale Tales is a blues album pretty much, but there are a lot of great textures at work over the course of these 10 tracks. There’s also some Doobies or Bob Seger-style rock & roll at play here and you’ll feel the country as well. It’s a smart mix of party hearty rockers, laid back stuff, and the disc ends with some spirited dobro on Desire which, to me, contains the standout lyric of not only this record but the most uplifting chorus of all the albums we’ve discussed this week; baby, you know desire’ll drive you mad/ but I had my heart broken by every dream I ever had/ you learn to bite and scratch when your back’s against the wall/ ‘cuz the worst thing in this life is to have no dream at all. It’s a sentiment I know to be true.
Ultimately, Starlight & Tall Tales is a record about hope and resilience. Bart puts it best in the final words of his liner note essay, referring to how 2020 has been so far; “We are a feisty species. These demons will fade and we will again drink wine and dance.”
KEY CUTS: Desire, Walk Away, The Healer
MY MANY SIDES Ramos (Frontiers) ****+
This is the fiery solo debut for guitarist Josh Ramos. Hailed for his work with bands like The Storm and Two Fires, he’s got this melodic hard rock thing down cold. For My Many Sides he invited an impressive array of rock singers to come out and play, and they really deliver the goods. This is excellent rock & roll, and huge fun to boot.
At the heart of this disc are some irresistible and occasionally bluesy riffs and melodies, not unlike a wank-free Vinnie Vincent. Anyone that knows their 80’s and 90’s hard rock will salivate at the list of singers that have come along for the ride; Eric Martin (Mr. Big), Danny Vaughn (Tyketto), Harry Hess (Harem Scarem), Joe Retta (Heaven & Earth), Terry Ilous (XYZ), John Bisaha (The Babys), Tony Harnell (ex-TNT) and Tony Mills (ex-Shy, TNT), and they are all similar enough in range and tone as to not disrupt the flow of the album. To be honest, Josh and his band (Tony Morra-drums, Fabrizio Grossi- bass, orchestrations) have given these guys songs worth singing over.
My Many Sides is well produced with plenty of hair on its knuckles, recalling a time when guitar driven rock was loud and inspiring. It doesn’t sound like a modern production masterpiece, all shiny with each note squeezed into place and buffed to a blinding sheen. As well sung and played as this record is, there’s something dirty about it too, which is very much to its benefit. To borrow a line from one of Clapton’s famous tunes, it’s got a rock & roll heart. As a guitar player, Josh Ramos has a similar feel to Slash on his solo stuff… and if you know Slash’s solo stuff, you should be pretty excited by the idea; solid riffery and great solos that, at times, border on heroic.
Is My Many Sides one of those rock albums that come in out of the blue and change the world? Probably not. This is meat and potatoes rock & roll… and there are days when absolutely nothing beats a big plate of meat ‘n’ taters. Dig in, this is very tasty.
KEY CUTS: Moving On (John Bisaha, vocals), Immortal (Tony, Harnell, vocals), I’ve Been Waiting (Harry Hess, vocals)