The Rock Doctor Album Reviews – June 17th, 2016

ALLIGATOR RECORDS 45TH ANNIVERSARY COLLECTION Various Artists (Alligator)  *****Simply stunning.  The little label that could marks their 45th birthday with a terrific 2 disc budget priced compilation.  An independent label with an impressive record (pardon the pun), they take their mission seriously- judging by these 37 tracks, they will be doing so for many years to come.The company slogan, “genuine houserockin’ music since 1971” certainly sums up their mission, and this quote from the New York Times fits like a glove; “With muscular, no-frills production, Alligator catches the blues as it melds with soul, rock, gospel, country and zydeco, partying away the pains of love.  Alligator is the leading record label for the blues, and has succeeded where the giants have failed.”Whereas the 40th Anniversary set covered the label’s overall history, 45’s emphasis is on more contemporary artists, from the likes of Shemekia Copeland, JJ Grey & Mofro, Selwyn Birchwood and Toronzo Cannon, while including legendary artists like Elvin Bishop, Curtis Selgado, The Holmes Brothers and more, who are still issuing vital and (dare I say it) important records.  Amazing performers like Albert Collins and Koko Taylor who are no longer with us are represented as well.Other than serving blues aficionados worldwide, Alligator has an impressive track record within the music business itself; 41 of their titles have been nominated for Grammys, the label and its artists have won well over a hundred Blues Music Awards, and more than 70 Living Blues awards.  All that stems from label CEO and founder Bruce Iglauer’s passion for this music- he fell for it in ’66 after seeing Mississippi Fred McDowell live.  After moving from Cincinnati to Chicago to work for Delmark Records, he was compelled to start his own label; his boss declined to record Bruce’s favourite band, Hound Dog Taylor & The House Rockers and the rest, as they say, is history.Lots of soul and groove here on 45th Anniversary, making it a cool party soundtrack pretty much as is.  It’s also great music to get stuff done to, as I threw it in my CD player at the office when it first arrived last week, and the afternoon sailed by in the blink of an eye. It’s also worth noting that, if you’re a fan or owner of any of their 5 previous anniversary collections (they’ve been putting them out since the 20th year), there are no repeat tracks here.Because I’ve reviewed albums by many of the artists on these two discs, I’m already familiar with some of this stuff- but it was a real joy to re-discover amazing musicians that I haven’t listened to in awhile like the late Michael “Iron Man” Burke and the master of the Telecaster, Albert Collins.As you listen to these two discs you’ll be amazed at how effortlessly the time flies, and you’ll be tapping your foot whether you want to or not.  45 may be intended as a celebration of the label’s longevity and success, but it’s also a celebration of life itself, assembled like a great driving compilation you would make for a close friend.  The packaging is perfect too, the booklet containing an introduction from Bruce himself as well as a paragraph on each of the 37 tracks presented here.   The label remains dedicated to recording and promoting great talent, confirming that the passion, energy and soul-healing power of Alligator’s music is strong, genuine and capable of rocking the house with no end in sight.ESSENTIALS:DISC 1: Voodoo Woman (Koko Taylor), Too Drunk To Drive Drunk (Joe Louis Walker)DISC 2: If Trouble Was Money (Albert Collins), Empty Promises (Michael Burke)   TRAIN DOES LED ZEPPELIN II Train (Atlantic) *The performances here are solid, but if I want to hear Led Zeppelin II then I’ll throw on the real deal.  Train are Zeppelin fans?  Who isn’t, but to slavishly reproduce a classic album is a cataclysmically bad idea for artist and label- nobody cares.LOVE YOU TO DEATH Tegan & Sara (Warner Music) ** ½  Hard to believe this is the 8th album for these twin sisters from Calgary.  Produced by Greg Kurstin (Adele, Sia, Beck, Ellie Goulding) this is shiny, modern pop with some depth and soul.Even as they’ve been embraced by the mainstream, Tegan and Sara consciously operate to the left of popular culture, with a lyrical and social wisdom that comes from being outsiders.  In many superficial respects this is very typical modern pop music, which is outside my wheelhouse for the most part- but when I listen to these songs, I key in on the stories they’re telling more than the computer manufactured music and simple melodies that carry them along.  Being decades older and a guy to boot make for a different perspective, but I can recall a time when the romantic treachery and entanglements of which they sing were more than just a pop song.Mining their own lives for lyrical content, Love You To Death (a cheeky title if there ever was one) is a collection of songs about complex relationship dynamics; their relationship as twins (100X, White Knuckles), mournful regret (That Girl), secret relationships (Boyfriend, the first single),  (U-turn ) a deliberately self-conscious anti-love song, and the list goes on.That manufactured pop landscape doesn’t really reach me, but of course Love You To Death isn’t aimed at 58 year old white guys.  This is a deeper album than it appears to be on first listen, moreso than your average pop confection- so if that’s the kind of stuff that speaks to you, then Love You To Death is very much worth having.ESSENTIALS: 100X, Boyfriend, Stop DesireFIGHT ANOTHER DAY Dan Reed Network (Frontiers) ***This marks the return of DRN, one of many melodic hard rock bands derailed by the advent of grunge.  Hailing from Portland, Oregon, this is the kind of stuff I was listening to in the late 80’s so I welcome their return.“It’s been 25 years since our last studio album The Heat was released, and to be honest I never envisioned making another DRN record” says Dan Reed.  “But with a mixture of fate and a collective of trusted friends and supporters in the business coming to the table, (we have this) new record on Frontiers records.”  In many respects, Fight Another Day feels very much like the records Bruce Fairbairn (Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, Kiss) produced in Vancouver back in the day, which is likely why I find myself responding to it.When the band hit the studio for this new disc, they had a very definite game plan. “As for the sound and approach of the album, the band and I thought it would be a great experiment and interesting challenge to what endeared the band to so many back in the day and deliver a rock record with funk and soul elements, strong melodies, but this time around incorporate even edgier lyrics” says Dan.  So, if you’re a fan of the group’s original stuff you’ll find this familiar and enjoyable too.This is very much an 80’s feeling album- melodic guitar driven rock & roll with a prominent keyboard presence too.  In the actual 80’s I preferred the straight up guitar stuff but now, all these years later, the extra dimension and tension added by keyboards is enjoyable.  Of course it doesn’t hurt that, as a singer, Dan Reed reminds me quite a bit of Phil Collins.Fight Another Day is unlikely to be a huge record, especially given what’s popular today- but it is a winsome re-connection with a long forgotten past.  Not bad, fellas, not bad.ESSENTIALS:  Ignition, Divided, Eye Of The StormINFECTED WITH THE BLUES Spencer MacKenzie (Independent) ****An amazing debut here from the young Ontario based guitarist. The word ‘prodigy’ is tossed around too easily but in Spencer’s case it applies.  He’s a 16 year old guitar slinger that lets his left-handed Strat do the talking for him.  When I saw his baby face on the cover I thought “It can’t be” but is- this kid is the real deal.Infected With The Blues is a mix of 3 originals and  5 well chosen covers; Mess Around, Kissing In The Dark, Jumpin’ From Six To Six, Sinner’s Prayer and All Along The Watch Tower. Of the 3 originals Goodbye Lucille is dedicated to and was inspired by the passing of BB King, one of MacKenzie’s early blues heroes.  His singing voice, while strong, belies his youth but as a guitarist his licks are smooth and tasty and his soloing is focused.  To be a bluesman it looks like he has all the right heroes too, dedicating is first album to “Ray, Jimi, Buddy, Stevie, B.B. and Muddy”.The temptation here would be to say “he’s pretty good for a kid”, but MacKenzie is a fine player, period.  His phrasing is on point, his vibrato and bends touching just the right emotional note time and time again- he isn’t just playing these songs, he’s feeling them too.  The band sounds like experienced blues players, offering up supple grooves and just the right accompaniment to let the kid shine- and shine he does.Others are recognizing Spencer Mackenzie’s abilities too- in 2013 he won the Niagara Music Awards Rising Star award, was selected to perform at the 2016 Youth Showcase at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis and he received  a scholarship from the Blues Foundation to attend the Fernando Jones Blues Camp this summer in Chicago. Infected With The Blues is a fine debut by any measure, and it offers hope that the blues is in good hands with the youngsters as we move into the future.  That somebody so young can play so well and truly ‘get’ the blues is thrilling to hear… have mercy!ESSENTIALS: Goodbye Lucille, Jumpin’ From Six To Six, All Along The WatchtowerPARADE Bill Phillipe (Arkansas Street) ***It’s the 2nd album for this San Francisco-based guitarist and songwriter.  By stretching the conventional boundaries of acoustic blues and jug bands with the use of accordion, clarinet and stand up bass, Phillippe has created a haunting sound that feels like it’s from another time and place, and it’s a trip.These are original songs, BP’s tales of love, loss and our journey through the ‘parade’ of experience that makes up a life, and as such this disc is an intimate-feeling experience.  Reflections In Blue praises his previous album, Ghosts, calling him a “Singer/ songwriter, bluesman, folksinger, gospel singer and storyteller extraordinaire. Phillipe’s work is a very diverse blending of styles for a sound that has a lot of that somewhat haunting sound that is common in the Mississippi delta”, and I repeat those words here because they get to the very heart of who this guy is as an artist.Each song on Parade is an intimate experience, sometimes uncomfortably so.  This isn’t toe-tappin’ get down on a Saturday night kind of music, more like a collection of sad and haunting vignettes that occasionally leave you gasping and wondering “how does this poor bastard get through the day?”  Most of these tracks are original, except Tom Waits’s Take It With Me and a melodic quote from Duke Ellington’s Solitude combined with the song A Kinder Voice.  The tunes have a sparse, vintage feel, and as a singer Phillippe kind of reminds me of Steve Earle just a little bit- not a bad thing at all.For me, Parade will always be an album with a specific mission, something to throw on when I’m feeling kind of down and in the mood to think about the big picture, where I’ve been, and where I might like to go in the time I have left.  Far from depressing I find that thought comforting, and suspect that others who listen to Parade might feel the same.  Not a disc for every day to be sure, but there will be times when nothing else will do.ESSENTIALS:  Proper Sorrow, Solitude/A Kinder Voice, TonightBAPTIST TOWN The Mike Eldred Trio (Great Western Recording Company) *****This is as authentic a blue experience as I’ve ever run into in all my 26+ years writing album reviews. Baptist Town, recorded at the legendary Sun Studios, is a monumental achievement in roots and blues storytelling, presented as a multi-layered blues journey through Mississippi juke joints, prisons, churches- pretty much a direct line to Baptist Town.According to the info I received with this disc, the catalyst for the album is the small neighbourhood outside Greenwood, Mississippi, where Robert Johnson was murdered in 1938.  The track Somebody Been Runnin’ references the final chapter of Johnson’s deal with the devil made at the crossroads, and some say fulfilled in Baptist Town the night he died. According to band leader Mike Eldred, this is the story behind this particular record; “This is our fourth album, and even before I wrote the songs I wanted to record it at Sun Studios” he says. “I had taken a trip down to Mississippi with my daughter because she wanted to do a road trip with me through the South, and we found Baptist Town while searching for Robert Johnson’s grave.  I was immediately struck with the harsh poverty and the contrast between the city of Greenwood, just across the railroad tracks, and the tiny, mostly unchanged community of Baptist Town.”All 13 tracks on Baptist Town drip with authenticity and soul, all the elements are here; lowdown blues, uplifting gospel, field hollers, ghostly chants, and even flat-out rockers like Black Annie and Sugar Shake. The band had some famous friends help out too as the disc features appearances by John Mayer, Robert Cray and David Hidalgo- I can’t imagine being a guitar player and NOT wanting to be part of something like this! Apparently, a full length documentary was also filmed around the making of Baptist Town, reportedly with interviews from many artists including Billy Gibbons, Robert Cray, David Hidalgo and Scotty Moore- I GOTTA lay hands on that!!“We wanted to make a record that reflected the soul of the south, acknowledge the poverty and racism that continues to exist, and celebrate the culture that has helped define American music” says Mike Eldred.  On that score, I’d say job spectacularly well done.ESSENTIALS:  Hunder Dollar Bill, Run Devil Run, Black AnnieONE FOR THE MONEY Ginger St. James (Busted) ***This is St. James’s 2nd full length El Pee, following on the heels of 2014’s Diesel & Peas and a couple of RP’s before that.  She’s a straight up old school country singer, following in the footsteps of Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Brenda Lee, and this is a charming set.Ginger’s sassy, powerful voice recalls early period Ronstadt, she has a taste for the rock & roll on tracks like Hair Of The Black Dog, and she’s hell-bent on showing us a good time.  There’s a reckless energy to these 9 songs that’s hard to ignore,  thanks to her writing and a really swingin’ band  With the longest song being well under 4 minutes, it’s a short ride… but like they say in the showbiz, always leave ‘em wanting more, right?The Toronto Star calls Ginger “a sassy and dynamic rockabilly singer, songwriter and guitarist” and that’s pretty much who you meet on One For The Money.  As implied above, her music is a throwback to earlier country and rock traditions, and that alone puts her head and shoulders above all the Barbie dolls that Nashville cranks out with sickening regularity.  I’m not a big country fan because most of what I hear in the genre today is dishonest, but Ginger St. James’s music is lively and spirited- when you put this disc on, you get a real sense that you’re dealing a real artist, someone making the music she believes in, and that’s a priceless commodity.I have no idea how old she is- much younger than me I would guess- but in listening to One For The Money I get the distinct impression that we grew up with the same sort of country music, that 60’s and 70’s stuff with twang and heft, way before country artists decided they wanted to sound like rock stars too.  Merle Haggard would’ve loved this, country music that needs no apology.ESSENTIALS:  Honeymoon Stage, Hair Of The Blackdog, Somebody Shot MeILLOGICAL OPTIMISM Reverend Freakchild (Treat And Release Records) *****What an unexpected treat!  This triple disc set is a revelation, showcasing the blues as a music of healing and, well, illogical optimism. Each disc has its own title; Odds, Ends & Other Amazingness includes songs from the sessions for this set as well as other tunes from the Freakchild vault… Everything Is Now is an entire disc of remixes of the Rev’s original All I Got Is Now! Record… and Kairos is an all acoustic country blues CD from Ramblin’ Jennings, a former preacher from Florida who has now found salvation in singing gospel blues on the streets of South Beach.As Living Blues says, “(The Rev’s) attitude is irreverent, but his enthusiasm for the blues is clear”.  The first disc by itself is a lot to take in- a groovy funk cover of John Lennon’s Imagine and a live version of All Along The Watchtower that re-casts it in a reggae frame.  I don’t recognize all the songs here, but there are tons of classic remakes in these 15 tracks- from the songs already mentioned, to twisting ZZ Top’s La Grange into  Shark Boogie (I’m sure Billy Gibbons would approve) to See That My Grave Is Kept Clean. It’s hard to imagine that he could have fun with the songs and treat them with respect at the same time, but that’s exactly what happens here. This was produced by Hugh Pool, who also blows some harp, and the drummer is Chris Parker.Not being familiar with Reverend Freakchild disc 2, the remixes, is the most intriguing of the three, the most fully produced and the liveliest here.  Hell, there’s even a song in German- I mean, who DOES that?!?Disc three, which I half expected to be sort of a throwaway set, is pretty heckin’ cool and my favourite here.  This one is solo acoustic stuff with some nasty slide work that sounds like it comes from the streets.  It feels like he’s following in Son House’s footsteps, so it’s no surprise that he has the berries to tackle John The Revelator to great effect.Illogical Optimism is a blues experience of the highest order that I cannot recommend highly enough- THIS is the good stuff.ESSENTIALS:DISC ONE: Imagine, Big Mouth Blues, Shark BluesDISC TWO:  Once Upon A Time Called Right Now, Everything is Now, Ich Hab Nur Diesen AugenblickDISC THREE:  Safe In The Storm, John The Revelator, Sinner BluesMAGMA Gojira (Roadrunner) *** +It’s one of those days when a little epic heaviness would really hit the spot, and along comes the new Gojira album.  I must confess to not paying attention to them previously, but this new set, their 6th album, is quite the thrill ride.You don’t often hear the phrase “French thrash quartet”, but that’s what Gojira is.  After touring with Slayer in late 2013 and writing while on the road, the guys decided to take things into the studio- but upon returning to their Brooklyn base, singer/ guitarist Joe Duplantier decided that building their own studio was the thing to do.  He designed and oversaw the construction of his own Silver Cord Studios over the course of six months.  “We always choose the hard way” he laughs. “We literally put the walls together and fine-tuned every aspect of the space.  It was worth it at the end because we had our own place to make music.”By the time construction was finished, the band decided to record, produce and mix Magma on their own.  “We began our career by doing everything ourselves, so we felt we should do this album that way” says drummer Mario Duplantier. “We composed 80% of the music together in the studio- everybody was on the same page.”This record feels thick, sludgy and heavy, so Magma is the perfect title to collectively call these 10 songs.  The riffs are detuned, heavy, pummelling and punishing.  “This album is the balance of everything we do and our most honest statement” notes Mario.  Brother Joe sums up Gojira’s mission with Magma when he says “I hope people enjoy the trip.  I hope they can disconnect from the chaos of their lives for an hour and have a nice moment of raw emotion and energy.  This is the pure essence of what we are now.”  Pretty cool shit.ESSENTIALS:  The Shooting Star, Pray, StrandedUNDER THE INFLUENCE Foghat (Foghat Records) ****+The spawn of Savoy Brown are back with their 19th album overall and 3rd studio album of the new millennium. It’s also their best in a good long while- the blues ‘n’ boogie that started back in ’72 is alive and well in 2016.  Under The Influence was 3 years in the making, and it was time well spent.If you haven’t paid attention in a while- and let’s face it, lots of people haven’t- the band these days includes original drummer Roger Earl, long time bassist Craig McGregor, Charlie Huhn on guitar and vocals, and Bryan Bassett on lead and slide guitar.  Original singer/ guitarist Dave Peverett was taken out by cancer in 2000, and lead guitarist Rod Price, though already retired from the band, was killed by a heart attack in ’05.  All that considered, the spirit that has fuelled Foghat since the beginning is still very much intact.Work on Under The Influence began in 2013 at the band’s Boogie Motel South studio in Florida. Originally being produced by guitarist Bassett, progress was slow because of his other commitments and outside help was brought in.  Enter Buddy Guy drummer/ producer Tom Hambridge, bringing Buddy Guy alumni Scott Holt with him, who helped with the writing and guested on a few of the tracks too. “I met Tom when presenting 3 awards to Buddy Guy and Tom at the Memphis Blues Awards” says Roger Earl.  “Tom said that he was a fan, and would love to produce a Foghat record.  Putting that in the back of my mind, this was the perfect opportunity- working with him was inspirational!”I’ve owned Family Joules (2003) and Last Train Home (2010) since they came out and enjoy them very much, but there’s something about the feel and even the playing on Under The Influence that lifts it higher. Nothing against the earlier discs, but there’s just something here that really clicks.   I’ve been a Buddy Guy fan for decades and there was a noticeable improvement in his records when Tom Hambridge got involved, so it makes sense that Tom would have a similar effect on Foghat. A pretty choice guest list on this disc too, with Savoy Brown leader Kim Simmonds contributing some guitar, vocals from the marvelous Dana Fuchs, and playing from Fool For The City era bassist Nick Jamieson.As with any album, it all comes down to the songs.  The original stuff on Under The Influence is their best work in some time, and I’m sure the input from Buddy Guy guitarist Scott Holt didn’t hurt either.  A couple if interesting (and I daresay well done) covers here too; a rockin’ version of I Heard It Through The Grapevine that follows the Marvin Gaye arrangement, and a re-recording of Foghat’s most epic track Slow Ride, done to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the song, with the participation of Nick Jamieson.  As a fan of the original I can honestly say it compares quite favorably.As good as Under The Influence is- and it’s very, very good- there will be those who say it can’t be Foghat because the drummer is the only original guy- but by that yardstick The Rolling Stones shouldn’t be called The Rolling Stones, AC/DC isn’t AC/DC and Judas Priest isn’t Judas Priest.  I’ve been a Foghat fan since Rock & Roll in 1973, and my ears and heart tell me this is very much Foghat.  Do they sound the same?  No- but how sad would it be if they did, after all these years and personnel changes?  The spirit is the same and that’s what matters.  I was a Foghat fan before I even knew what the blues was, and this latest slice of high octane boogie heaven REALLY hits the spot.ESSENTIALS:  Honey Do List, I Heard It Through The Grapevine, Made Up My Mind, Slow RideSTRANGER TO STRANGER Paul Simon (Concord Records) *****Paul Simon’s 13th solo studio record, following 2011’s So Beautiful Or So What.  In a career full of gorgeous work going all the way back to Simon & Garfunkel in the 60’s, he’s just bowled me over. As much as I’ve enjoyed them all, I haven’t been this excited by a Paul Simon album since Graceland in 1986.Stranger To Stranger was produced with his old partner from his S&G days, Roy Halee, who managed to capture a classic Paul Simon sound mixed with some of the jazzy, avant-garde soundscapes and directions that his muse takes him these days.  He has found freedom in no longer trying to chase hit singles or climb the album charts- here there’s a freeform weirdness I find uncommonly captivating.  It feels like he doesn’t so much write the songs as he merely allows them to occur.  He doesn’t dictate to his muse, he follows it wherever it may lead.As a singer, Paul has the same thing going for him that James Taylor has in that his voice has stayed almost exactly the same over the years, which no doubt helps when trying to assimilate new work.  At 72, Simon sounds the same as he did in his 20’s and that’s freaky.  As he became particularly with Graceland, Paul has proven once again that being an album artist is not a lost art form.  Certainly each of these songs can stand on their own, but perhaps united by their lyrical oddness and jazzy melodic construction, they belong together too.On Stranger To Stranger the lyrics can get quite abstract and on songs like Werewolf, quite amusing too.  With Cool Papa Bell he ruminates on the word motherfucker, and Wristband tells the tale of a musician who accidentally gets locked out of his own gig and the bouncers won’t let him back in because he doesn’t have a wristband.  There are tasty little instrumental interludes here and there and the deluxe version, which I purchased, contains 2 live performances from “A Prairie Home Companion”, another short instrumental, the song Horace And Pete, and a collaboration with Dion called New York Is Me Home.Though something else entirely, Stranger To Stranger also feels like it came from the same adventurous musical spirit that brought us Graceland and Rhythm Of The Saints. I’m not sure I can quantify exactly why I love this disc so much, only that I do.  Stranger To Stranger is one of those rare albums that will sound fresh and amazing every single time you put it on- a pretty neat trick, if you can pull it off.ESSENTIALS: Werewolf, Wristband, Cool Papa Bell, New York Is My Home


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