LISTEN WITHOUT PREJUDICE/ MTV UNPLUGGED (DELUXE) George Michael (Sony Music) *****
This posthumous release hit store shelves and digital retailers October 20th to coincide with George Michael’s final project, the documentary Freedom currently showing on HBO. It was while still watching it that I emailed my contact at Sony to request this new 2 disc set, and it’s as good as I’d hoped it would be.
My relationship with George Michael’s music is complicated. I claimed to dislike the teenie-bopper appeal of Wham!, yet was not afraid to dance to their songs at a club or purchase a couple of tracks on I-Tunes. I thought that his Faith album from 1987 was the best pop music album ever made- still do. But thanks to his legal entanglements with Sony and insistence that he not appear in any of the videos for his follow-up record, Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1 in 1990, not to mention his well publicized run-ins with the law, he came across as something of a loon and my musical attention wandered elsewhere for a number of years. The 90 minutes or so it took to watch Freedom a few days ago on HBO was enough to change my perception and cause me to re-examine his music. With fresh eyes, ears and a fresh heart, I was truly moved by what I found.
The documentary helps us appreciate the whirlwind of publicity and expectation George was caught up in. He wanted to step back from the madness and be taken seriously as a musician and songwriter but Sony in the U.S., seeing the amount of money to be made, were not about to take the biscuit wheels off of that gravy train. Even after that, and after the ‘bathroom bust’ and being found asleep in his car turned him into a punch-line, unbeknownst to most of us, George Michael was still writing and singing his ass off.
George passed away quietly in his sleep on Christmas morning of 2016, leaving behind, in retrospect, an impressive musical legacy; the Wham records, 5 solo studio albums (all multi-platinum) and more, leaving us to wonder what might have been. Listen Without Prejudice, disc one in this new set, is a re-mastered version of the follow-up to Faith. It’s a statement of George Michael’s intention to cast aside the trappings of pop stardom, the title a bid to be taken seriously as an artist and leave Faith behind. Though the message was not well received upon release as he may have hoped, the songs are meticulously well crafted and his singing is exquisite. Re-releasing it piggybacked to the previously unissued MTV Unplugged serves to re-introduce it to those of us that missed it the first time around. I’ve had Prejudice in my CD library since 1990, but couldn’t tell you the last time I listened to it.
For people that have been fans of George Michael’s music all along, the drawing card here is MTV Unplugged. It features acoustic performances of songs from across George’s career, with the emphasis on material from Listen Without Prejudice (1990) and Older (1996). The songs are lushly orchestrated and beautifully performed, perhaps the final step in his transformation from pop tart to serious musical artist. I haven’t been able to find any information on this performance; perhaps it was planned as some sort of career renaissance prior to George’s death to remind everyone of what we’ve been missing. To him, it may have just been the next album.
Listen Without Prejudice/ MTV Unplugged is an exquisite, well- crafted jazz/pop adventure well worth the $11.99 ($16.99 for the deluxe edition) that I-Tunes is asking for it. Some may balk at the ‘sophisticated cocktail jazz’ feel of much of this material, but I find it relaxing and absorbing… it`s sheer magic.
KEY TRACKS: DISC ONE: Freedom ’90, Cowboys & Angels, Praying For Time
DISC TWO: Everything She Wants, Father Figure, I Can’t Make You Love Me
UNIFIED Sweet & Lynch (Frontiers) ***
I know Michael Sweet from Stryper as well as his solo stuff, and George Lynch comes from Dokken, Lynch Mob, and the super-group KXM with Dug Pinnck of King’s X and Ray Luzier of Korn. Unified is Sweet & Lynch’s 2nd album, following up 2015’s Only To Rise. It’s enthusiastic, unbridled rock & roll with a bluesy metallic edge.
It would seem that both guys hate having downtime, being involved in so many side projects aside from their ‘day jobs’, but the combination of their talents produces undeniable results. Michael Sweet’s strong and dramatic singing style works so well with Lynch’s guitar heroics that it’s a wonder they didn’t get together sooner. The band in 2015 also included ex-White Lion & Megadeth bassist James Lomenzo and ex- Foreigner & Whitesnake drummer Brian Tichy, and I can’t find any info that this isn’t the case on Unified as well.
Lots of great riffs on Unified, like the hard-charging opener Promised Land and the decidedly darker and sludgier Afterlife. This is what Styx would sound like if they went metal. In fact when I interviewed Michael Sweet after the last Stryper album in 2015 (Fallen) I told him he sounds a lot like Dennis DeYoung. Michael, in turn, told me that when Styx set about replacing Dennis, he was considered for the position- without his knowledge… Canadian singer Larry Gowan ended up with the gig.
I am loathe to call this ‘heavy metal’ as that term means so many different things today, so let’s call Unified stampeding hard rock instead. The production is spot on, though the kick drum sounds like somebody thumping a plastic tub- and that’s unfortunately not unusual today. This disc conjures up the feeling of unbridled optimism I remember feeling in the 80’s, and that feels pretty good.
KEY CUTS: Afterlife, Promised Land, Tried & True
BIG ROAD Erin Harpe & The Delta Swingers (Vizz Tone/ Juicy Juju) *** ¾
This is the band’s sophomore album, the follow-up to 2014’s Love Whip Blues, and it’s a beauty. Self-produced and full of raw, live energy, Big Road highlights Erin’s influences; from acoustic delta blues to the electric stuff, including slide n boogie.
Big Road is a rowdy record, but it never seems out of control or over the top. It includes 4 originals and Harpe’s own arrangement of songs by Mississippi Fred McDowell, Tommy Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Slim Harpo and Randy Newman. “It’s the album I’ve always wanted to make” Erin says. “An authentic, live-sounding set of songs, centered around my guitar playing, which is at the root of my music- from acoustic finger picking, to electric slide guitar, to wah-wah fueled funk, with a few guitar solos thrown in.” She adds “I also wanted to highlight our band sound by playing live in a room together, with just a handful of overdubs.” Sounds like fun- and it is.
That live energy Erin mentions is a big part of Big Road’s appeal, there are few things in life more satisfying that having a group of like-minded people find the groove and hold it down, something Erin Harpe & The Delta Swingers do quite naturally. This disc isn’t the result of fancy production techniques, its existence is more organic than that. Big Road isn’t a shiny, glistening pearl- it’s a little rough around the edges and far from perfection which, oddly, is one of the things that make it so wonderful to listen to.
The musical performances on Big Road are quite enjoyable, particularly Erin’s guitar playing, and her singing is natural and unforced. This is pretty damn cool.
KEY CUTS: Big Road Blues, Gimme That, Voodoo Blues
RIVERS Mark Martyre (independent) ****
This is the 5th full-length album for this Toronto-based singer/ songwriter. Rivers is the perfect soundtrack for a rainy day as his smoky, raw voice spins tales that you’ve either lived directly or are at least familiar with. Mark understands us.
“Happens to me when the sun goes down/ the pleasure never balances the pain”- the first words we first hear Martyre sing in Come Lie Beside Me, Dear, the opening track. He writes poetic lyrics about things and people being taken away, about trying not to forget, about trying to find a place to go when there’s nowhere else to run. There are times in my life when I’ve felt that more keenly than others, and perhaps that’s why Rivers feels so instantly relatable. There’s something deeply satisfying about finding songs that feel like they understand what you’ve been through, and this is a flood of emotions laid bare for the listener to experience.
Rivers is a mainly acoustic affair, produced by Mark without any of the usual fancy razzle dazzle to take away from the psychological heft of the songs themselves. He seems to know where the dark corners of the soul are and has no compunction about going there. There are up-tempo numbers like Carry On but mostly this disc feels slow and introspective. Some might find that something of a bummer, but not me. Thanks to some questionable wiring I find those dark corners interesting, juicy… delicious.
There are times when you don’t want an album to make you feel like dancing or driving your car to fast. When you’re in the mood to think about where you’ve been and where you might be headed, I can’t think of a better companion than Rivers.
KEY CUTS: Come Lie Beside Me Dear, Nowhere Else To Go But Up, Never Forget You
TOO MANY BAD HABITS Johnny Nicholas & Friends (The People’s Label) *****
This is a double disc reissue of Austin-based bluesman Johnny Nicholas’s long out-of-print 1977 classic album; disc one being the album proper and disc two a bonus disc of previously unreleased tracks. It’s a blues adventure to be sure, worth the admission price alone for the participation of legends like Johnny Shines and Big Walter.
“This album was initially released on the fledgling Blind Pig label in 1977 and was cut from their catalogue in 1978 shortly after I joined Asleep At The Wheel and stopped touring under my own name” says Johnny. In retrospect that’s a blunder on Blind Pig’s part as AATW’s growing fame would’ve helped them sell some records. Too Many Bad Habits also includes the original liner notes from that 1977 release as well as a new set written by author/ music critic Ed Ward. The CD case also has that fake ‘worn out’ kind of look, like a vinyl album that’s been around for ages.
The first thing you feel listening to Too Many Bad Habits is that feeling of a bunch of guys sitting around, banging on cheap guitars, blowin’ some harp and singin’ the blues, that sort of ‘wish you’d been there’ feeling. Of the original album, Johnny says “There were three recording sessions that I recall, although so much of that period of my life was a blur. I was constantly ramblin’ between Chicago, Ann Arbor, Texas and Louisiana during those days, with several stints hitch hiking and hopping freight trains.” So Nicholas didn’t just play and sing the blues he lived it, and you feel that in the music.
Had this set not been a reissue of Johnny’s 1977 record, a good title would’ve been A Heap O Blues, because that’s just what this is. Dig these joyous performances by many of the masters- Too Many Bad Habits is blues magic.
KEY CUTS: DISC ONE: Mandolin Boogie, Grinnin’ In Your Face, Blues Came Fallin’ Down
DISC TWO: Pump Jockey Blues, Apple Grove Rhumba, That’s Alright Mama
PROPHETS OF RAGE Prophets Of Rage (I-Tunes purchase) *****
Following last year’s stunning 5 song E.P. The Party’s Over, this is Prophets Of Rage’s self-titled debut. I’m not big on rap or hip-hop, that belongs more to the generation or two that came up after mine… but if Tom Morello is involved, color me interested. From Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave to his solo records as The Night Watchman and even the album he did with Springsteen, I’m always as intrigued by what he has to say as what he has to play- this disc is a battering ram.
Prophets of Rage is a mix of the rock elements of Rage Against The Machine combined with the talents of rappers B-Real and Chuck D, along with DJ Lord on turntables and backing vocals. Prophets achieves maximum heaviosity in more ways than one with angry lyrics that are socially and politically relevant to our times, just as protest music used to be in the late 60’s. These songs are musically heavy too with a heavy backbeat upon which everything else hangs, mixed to optimum effect by Brendan O’Brien.
As a guitarist, Morello is unique. Yeah he can play smokin’ hot leads when a song calls for it but more often his leads are squonky and unconventional. On the face of it, Prophets Of Rage is a straight up rock album that features rapping instead of the usual banshee wailing or guttural howls that come with the territory. Morello, Brad Wilk, Tim Commerford, B, Chuck and DJ all clearly remember when music was an agent of protest and change, as opposed to today where it has become little more than wallpaper. I think part of their mission, aside from the socially explicit and occasionally graphic lyrical messages, is to make music that matters, music that can make a difference, and they’ve succeeded.
Prophets Of Rage is an album that flat-out rocks and it can be enjoyed purely on that level, but I urge you to listen deeper… it has so much more in store for you
KEY CUTS: Unfuck The World, Hail To The Chief, Take Me Higher