SOME DAY THE HEART WILL TROUBLE THE MIND The High Bar Gang (True North) *****Here is the 2nd album for this Vancouver based bluegrass collective. Full of dark, engaging songs plus top notch singing and playing, it’s pretty wonderful.O Brother Where Art Thou in 2000, one of my very favourite films, instigated a bluegrass boom that still reverberates. The simple songs of hill folk on the soundtrack resonated far more than the filmmakers could have expected, and that seems to be the case with groups and artists following in its wake. The High Bar Gang out of Vancouver consists on Barney Bentall, Dave & Kirby Barber, Rob Becker, Wendy Bird, Colin Nairne and Shari Ulrich and they a touch, feel and facility with this particular type of music. More than a commercial venture they play these songs because they love them, and you can really feel that in the playing and the vocal arrangements too.There first disc was Lost & Undone in 2013, subtitled “A Gospel Bluegrass Companion”, with their current set is billed as “affecting sagas of love, loss and betrayal”. These 13 tracks were researched from rare bluegrass recordings by The Stanley Brothers, JD Crowe, Flatt & Scruggs, Hazel Dickens with Alice Gerrard and Jimmy Martin, and The Sunny Mountain Boys. As well, several suggestions were made by friends Ry Cooder and Elvis Costello. You’ll also find songs here written by Steve Earle, Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash.Whereas The High Bar Gang’s debut was recorded in mono, engineer Dave Meszaros convinced them to do the new one in stereo at Watershed Studios in Vancouver. As before, they recorded live in the studio, which gives the new album a very natural, organic feel. It feels like we’re right in the studio listening, and there’s that intangible joy of musicians pulling in the same direction together, making a song the best it can be.If you like bluegrass, if something like the O Brother soundtrack really speaks to you, then this will too. Someday The Heart Will Trouble The Mind has an irresistible old timey charm- musical perfection is rare but it does exist, and this is your proof.
ESSENTIALS: Don’t This Road Look Rough & Rocky, Long Lonesome Highway Blues, Red Wicked Wine
LIVE AT KNUCKLEHEAD’S VOL. I Nick Schnebelen Band (Vizztone) *****Been in a bit of a funk the last few weeks, and this album by a band I’ve never even heard of picked me up by the scruff of the neck, looked me right in the eye and said “Cheer up, asshole.” This is some of the tastiest, greasiest, barbeque sauce wearing-est blues I’ve heard in a while. Live At Knucklehead’s isn’t just good, it’s GREAT.This group hails from Kansas City, a hotbed of the blues there ever was one. Nick is on vocals and guitar (as you might expect from the band’s name), and he’s joined by Heather Newman on vocals and guitar, Cliff Moore on bass, and Joe Voye on drums. Schnebelen won the Albert King award for best guitarist at The Blues Foundation’s 2008 International Blues Challenge, which you’ll have no trouble believing after listening to Live. The riffs are dark, simple and chunky, and his soloing is lethal… I don’t think I’ve dug a blues player this much since I first heard Buddy Guy in the early 90’s. Yeah, Nick is THAT good.Not sure how many of these songs are originals as the album packaging doesn’t provide those details, but they do smokin’ covers of Gnarls Barkly’s Crazy Spoonful(a Willie Dixon tune I believe, done most famously by Howlin’ Wolf) and even Dolly Parton’s Jolene. Crowded noise is a little subdued and down in the mix, and each song is treated individually as opposed to presenting this as an approximation of the gig itself, but that’s okay as I’m here for the music.As with most blues that hits the hardest and digs the deepest, Live At Knuckleheads Vol. I is a spiritual and revelatory experience. I found myself getting lost a couple of times along the way, but was only too glad let this gifted band drag me away and then guide me back. Newman does the majority of the vocals and is an exciting, emotional singer, while Voye and Moore know exactly where the pocket is. What all this blather boils down to is that this is the really, really good stuff and it absolutely MUST be heard.
ESSENTIALS: Crazy, Spoonful, Tailgate Swing
BEAUTIFUL BROKEN Heart (Concord) ***** +Man has Heart ever been on a tear of late, new records every couple of years with Beautiful Broken being the newest chapter. I’ve been a fan since Dreamboat Annie and this, their most varied and exciting record yet, combines new material alongside re-recorded classics that got glossed over the first time around.The line on Heart back in the day from bonehead critics was they couldn’t decide if they wanted to be Fleetwood Mac or Led Zeppelin but, as Zeppelin themselves proved on III, what’s wrong with being both? Produced by Dan Rothchild and Nancy Wilson the sound is thick and wildly expressive- everything one could want from a Heart record. Muscular guitar playing combined with rich string sections give the music a heft and physical presence with occasionally psychedelic overtones that some of their earlier records have lacked. I think folks that haven’t listened to Heart in awhile are going to be quite surprised. Red Velvet Car and Fanatic, in retrospect, pointed the way here.It’s always a dangerous idea for a band to re-record previous material, but the songs Heart resurrects here aren’t particularly well known to the public at large. Sweet Darlin’ (a long-time favourite of mine) is made over with lush orchestration, taking an already powerful song of longing into the stratosphere. It originally appeared on 1980’s Bebe LeStrange, as did Down On Me, which has been given a particularly bluesy and muscular lease on life. Johnny Moon can be traced back to 1983’s Passionworks, and while I can’t really recall the original (that record being one of maybe 3 Heart albums I don’t own), I quite enjoy the new version.Beautiful Broken is a far heavier, larger sounding album than anticipated and, if this is any indication of what Rothchild and Wilson can do as producers when they put their heads together, they’d better produce any future releases too. Dreamboat Annie was released 40 years ago yet Heart continues to push their own boundaries, making continuously better and better records since coming out the other side of their creatively fallow 80’s period when Capitol records was pulling their strings. When left to their own devices Hearts make consistently great records, and history will show Beautiful Broken to be a creative milestone. Quite frankly this album is PERFECT and it will be a cold day in hell before it comes out of my CD player.
ESSENTIALS: Beautiful Broken (with some vocals from James Hetfield), Down On Me, Sweet Darlin’, I Jump
TENNISSIPPI Little Boys Blue (Jaxon/ Vizztone) ***If you want your blues to have some meat and muscle on the bone, have I got a band for you! Hailing from Jackson, Tennessee, Little Boy Blue have spent 20 years perfecting their supple, dense brand of jump/ roadhouse blues- I predict you will enjoy this.There’s a lot at work here as The Boys effortlessly blend Nashville country, Sun Records rockabilly and blues slathered in Mississippi mud. Recorded at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals Alabama and Webb studios in Memphis, Tennisippi has all the southern charm you could possibly hope for. It’s true that country is the white man’s blues, making a perfect dance partner for the other elements being brought to this picnic table.The band is JD Taylor (vocals, harp), Alex Taylor (lead & rhythm guitars), Tyler Goodson (slide/ lead/ rhythm), Dave Mallard (bass), Mark Brooks (drums) and Dave Thomas (B3), with a handful of friends rolling up their sleeves and pitching in. John Gifford III is credited as engineer with an ‘executive producer’ credit going to JD, and I have to say well done, boys. The mix has a nice, thick bottom end that gives the songs a physical presence as they flow out of the speakers, yet they instruments are bright, sharp and concise. Regardless of genres, this is what a good record sounds like.Bluesy and soulful, romantic and heartbreaking, Tennisippi is one of the records that, from the energetic opening title cut to the instrumental Jackson that brings things to a close, won’t ever let you go- and you won’t want it to. The guitar work is excellent, Dave Thomas’s keyboard work is the star of the show for me, and hats off to all the guys for righteous performances.
ESSENTIALS: Pack It Up Baby, Tennissippi, Jackson, Chitlins Con Carne
SLOW BURN Al Lerman (Independent) ***+The Fathead mainstay is stepping out on his own once again to display his wares. 11 of the 12 cuts are originals, along side a kick-ass version of the delta blues classic Kokomo. Slow Burn is rather jaunty for a blues record, and eminently likeable too.John Taylor of Blinded By Sound says that “Lerman’s compositions are, for the most part, quietly unassuming masterpieces… every note tempered by experience yet delivered with an undiminished energy and enthusiasm.” This almost sounds like an acoustic Duke Robillard album- the arrangements are warm and full, performances jubilant, and their singing voices are quite similar. Slow Burn’s welcoming vibe is due in part to Lerman’s talents as a composer and artist, but kudos too, to producer Alec Fraser, one of the most respected roots music producers/ musicians, playing bass and singing backups on a number of songs here.The bio I got with this says you’ll dig this if you’re into Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Fathead (of course), Morgan Davis, Keb’ Mo’ and Paul Butterfield- after a couple of spins that feels right on the money to me. The special sauce on this one is, of course, Lerman’s harp playing- it’s loaded with attitude yet never overwhelms a track, and there’s an unmistakable warble to many passages that seems to say “Yeah, I’m very good at this and I know it!”Unlike the couple of blues albums I reviewed above, Slow Burn has a relaxed feel that invites you in with its laid back musical excellence. My preference is the more ‘in your face’ stuff when it comes to the blues, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like this batch of songs. I dig this disc quite a bit and it’s great company- you can’t ask for more.
ESSENTIALS: Bad Luck Blues Tattoo Like You¸ Younger Man Than Me, Slow Burn (an excellent instrumental that closes out the album)
BLUE SKIES Matty T. Wall (Hipsterdumpster) *******It’s debut album from this young Australian, a guitarist with a touch and facility with the blues far beyond his years. If electric blues is your thing, then Matty will make the hair on your arms stand up. That’s a 7 out of 5, THAT’S how frigging great this album is.From Perth, Matty originally discovered his path while exploring the roots of rock- it’s only natural that it would lead him to the blues. His influences run the gamut, from old school blues like Robert Johnson up to Hendrix and beyond. It’s only right that he would cover Jimi’s Voodoo Chile and Johnson’s Hellhounds On My Trail as a tip of the fedora to the masters.He’s got a great band behind him as he sings and rips the notes from his Gibson SG; Jasper Miller on drums, Stephen Walker on bass, Gordon Cant on keys and Deli Rowe on backing vocals. The group as a whole attacks each song with muscle, precision and attitude, and when Wall solos, particularly on songs like the joyously manic instrumental Scorcher, you can picture the fire flying from his fingertips.When it comes to guitarists, the word ‘virtuoso’ is flung about far too readily, but after one listen to Blue Skies it’s easy to hear how it actually applies to this guy. Produces by Matty himself, this disc has a power and clarity, whether they’re tearing it up or laying back on a mid-tempo ballad like the title cut, which they throw a little grease on at about the 3:30-ish mark. This is basically a blues record, but with pop and rock smarts and sensibilities- the best of all possible worlds, really.
ESSENTIALS: Burnin’ Up Burnin’ Down, Scorcher, Girl With The Broken Hearted Tatto, and an epic, fucking MOLTEN version of Voodoo Chile
BIG DOG Albert Castiglia (Tuf) ****Another set of rough and tumble blues here from Castiglia, his sixth, with that raw roadhouse vibe that his fans love. This ain’t the fancy stuff, it’s roll your sleeves up and get down n dirty blues- the way it sometimes has just got to be.“I have no illusions about what kind of guitar player and singer I am” Albert says. “My style is raw, unadulterated, crude and heavy. I don’t have the technical proficiency of other players, but I play what’s in my heart and what I feel at that moment. When I write songs, they have to mean something.” Big Dog is surely all that and more. It’s not a pretty album but it’s real. Albert describes this as a “driving along the highway with the top down kind of record”, and that’s just how it resonates.Label mate and star in his own right Mike Zito produced the record and, based on what I’ve just heard, these guys gotta keep working together. Though Castiglia is from Florida this set was recorded at Dockside Studios in Louisiana, and you can feel that mojo in these songs. Big Dog is a collection of self-penned originals, co-writes and powerful covers. The original Get Your Ass In The Van is, Albert says, “A response to all those poor, pampered souls who think that music is one, big American Idol episode.” This set is playful and gritty, with plenty of dirt under the fingernails… just the way I like it.Raw, energetic and deep, this is the kind of blues I’ll be using again and again. Now excuse while I go for a drive, put Big Dog in the CD player and turn it up to 11.
ESSENTIALS: Get Your Ass In The Van, Where Did I go Wrong, Somehow
BRAVE NEW UNIVERSE Last Hologram (independent) ****Never heard of this indie band before? If you don’t live in the Toronto area, that’s not surprising. The Band Formerly Known As “Lickpenny Loafer” (they released People Will Talk in 2011) is setting sail under a new name, and marking their departure from the dock with a dreamy, arresting new album.On first listen, Brave New Universe reminded me a bit of the Belle & Sebastian track Seymour Stein that comes up during one of the scenes in the flick High Fidelity. The singer and fearless leader of this indie pop collective is Arunachal Subramanian- born in India, his grandmother is Indian classical music composer Indira Natesman. He came of age musically in Johannesburg where he worked for a time, listening to South African music like Kweto alongside Morrissey, Radiohead and Talk Talk.Arunachal’s band mates and co-conspirators in this catchy pop adventure include Devin Hannan (guitarist, songwriting collaborator), Jen Benton (bassist for the Klicks and Andy Kim), James Scott (drummer for Hot Wax Meltdown), Scott Galloway (keys and synths for Dean Brody and more) and lots of other people you may not have heard of but have come across their playing without even knowing it.Brave New Universe is well produced synth driven 80’s style pop with dense rock grooves and, being one of those snobs who thought the 80’s sucked (I was drunk most the time so what do I know?), I was quite pleasantly surprised to find myself carried away on melodic waves of joy. I haven’t crawled in and analyzed the lyrics yet but will get around to that later. Listening to this disc is unusually pleasant and for now, that’s enough.
ESSENTIALS: Dreamchaser, Streetlight Song, The Lens
KNOCK ‘EM OUT… WITH A METAL FIST Elm Street (Massacre) ** ½Here is the sophomore album for this Australian metal outfit, with an EP standing between this and their debut. Patterning themselves after the likes of Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Savatage, Megadeth and Grim Reaper, they make a mighty noise. Intense death metal style vocals over a bed of more traditional and volcanic, articulate riffs, this sounds pretty good.The history of heavy metal is full of bands that take themselves, and the art of “rockin’”, far too seriously- and the title of this disc would seem to suggest that, backed up by song titles like Face The Reaper and Heavy Mental. Musically I like this, a traditional metal sound and vibe, like a mix of Megadeth and Priest with a touch of early 80’s Iron Maiden, but the vocals are nearly impossible to decipher. Then again I am closing in on 60 so perhaps it’s only natural for me to wonder what all the yelling is about.Not a whole lot else to say here. Knock ‘Em Out is an extremely well-produced, propulsive record, the kind of rock & roll I generally enjoy driving to, but the screaming vocals will take a lot of getting used to, especially for us old bastards. Straddling the line between traditional and extreme metal is not a bad way to go, but when occupying the middle ground like that the risk is that neither side will get overly excited.Clearly more than a single spin is warranted here, but that’s all I have time for. If, however, this sounds like your cup of joe, you’ll need to be patient- the album isn’t out until September 9th. Album artwork by Ken Kelly (Kiss’s Destroyer) is pretty cool to see.
ESSENTIALS: Next In Line, Sabbath
AFRAID OF HEIGHTS Billy Talent (Warner Music) **** +Here is the band’s fifth album, as vital and alive a piece of rock & roll as you’re likely to hear this year. They’ve managed to hang onto their punk roots and grow in leaps and bounds at the same time- a pretty nifty trick if you can manage it.Recording started a couple of days after New Years under a cloud, as some of rock’s mightiest artists (Bowie, Lemmy) began to fall one after the other. As the band struggled to get things going, on January 15th, drummer Aaron Solowoniuk announced that he would not be playing on the new album, that the multiple sclerosis he’s been battling since the 90’s had finally forced him out from behind the kit. “It was one of the hardest things we’ve had to deal with as a band” says guitarist/ Ian D’Sa, who is also the band’s producer and chief songwriter. “It was a dagger to the heart” agrees frontman Ben Kowalewicz. Still, the drummer was there for the sessions as a co-producer, very much a part of the creative process.The making of Afraid Of Heights moved forward, with Alexisonfire’s Jordan Hastings stepping in on drums, and the band came up with perhaps their most varied set to date- they’re certainly not playing it safe. Says D’Sa, “Every time we put out a record, a lot of older fans are like, ‘I wish they would make another record that sounds like the first one!’ But we’re more in the headspace of not recreating what we’ve done already. There’s a lot of things on this record I’ve never tried before: I programmed synths, there’s a lot of piano stuff, there’s acoustic guitar. It’s our most experimental record yet.”Never fear, Afraid of Heights doesn’t abandon Billy Talent’s punk roots. The music is still hard charging, and the socially conscious lyrical themes serve to re-enforce rock & roll’s transformative and provocative power, as an agent for change, and its historical significance as a revolutionary force. “Rock music is what changed all our lives” says Kowalewicz. “We need to nurture it and inspire the next generation of kids to pick up guitars, bass and drums- because hopefully the music will affect them the way it affected us, and they’ll pay it forward too.” Wishful thinking, given the musical landscape that surrounds them, but if there’s a record that can help bring about a seismic shift like that, by God Afraid Of Heights is it.
ESSENTIALS: Louder Than The DJ, Afraid of Heights (both versions), This Is Our War
Ellipsis Biffy Clyro (14th Floor/ Warner Music) **** ½Here is the 7th studio album for this Scottish rock band. I had not heard of them before 2014’s Similarities compilation but was immediately drawn to their angular, well written songs. If anything, I like them even more after spinning Ellipsis a couple of times.Citing differences as diverse as Tears For Fears’ Songs From The Big Chair as well as DJ Arca and Deafheaven, Simon Neil (guitar, piano, lead vocals) describes the new record as “more of a punch to the nose than a big cuddle.” Lyrically, the songs address some pretty personal issues with the idea of fighting back a recurring theme. Wolves of Winter, the angry first single, is a good illustration of Neil’s description of the record as a whole. Of that particular song, he notes that “(It’s) about us being wolves on a patch and if you come onto that patch, we’ll tear you limb from limb.”Biffy Clyro is what it would sound like if Barenaked Ladies and Foo Fighters got together, a seemingly unlikely combination that really happens to work here. The songs in general are quite dynamic- the amps may be cranked to 11 most of the time, but not every second. The title of the record is appropo; an “Ellipsis” indicates a continuation, and the Biffys latest chapter is an ongoing representation of everything the band have stood for since their 2002 debut Blackened Sky.I know it’s a small thing, but I particularly enjoy being able to hear Neil’s Scottish accent when he sings, sort of like The Proclaimers. A lot of rock vocalists from the UK lapse into a neutral all-purpose style, but the accent adds to the attitude of these already volatile songs. The hooks are catchy as hell, there’s a punk energy to the band’s playing, and no big, heroic solos to speak of- just one hard charging song leading into the next.I have no idea where Biffy Clyro places in terms of ranking amongst the world’s rock acts, but based on Ellipsis, they should be blasting from every radio on the planet. If there’s a better rock album out there this year, I haven’t heard it yet.
ESSENTIALS: Wolves of Winter, Re-arrange, On A Bang
THE ROYAL GOSPEL Royal Southern Brotherhood (Ruf) ***This is the group’s 4th album in just 4 years if you don’t count their live set, an unheard of pace today. They have plenty to say, and many blues grooves to lay down. As the title of this disc seems to imply, this is one set that has soul to spare.Royal Southern Brotherhood is now Cyrille Neville (percussion, vocals), Bart Walker (guitar, vocals), Tyrone Vaughan (guitar/ vocals), and Yonrico Scott (drums), as they welcome bassist Darrell Phillips to the fold. Obviously they communicate well and come to work prepared- The Royal Gospel was recorded at Louisiana’s Dockside Studios in early February of this year in just 7 days.Perhaps on this disc moreso than the others, Royal Southern Brotherhood sound and feel like a gumbo- fuelled reggae band. Maybe it’s the way they move and groove, the spiritual nature of their lyrics or the quiet assurance with which they play, knowing that they are headed in the right and true direction for them, and there is no struggle over the balance of power.Of the new record bassist Darrell Phillips notes that “We walked in not really knowing what we were gonna do. Cyril and Bart come to us with chord progressions, tempos and ideas, and we built together. We’d just fall right into the thing, and all of a sudden there’s a song.” That, and recording live off the floor with a minimum of overdubs, being able to look each other in the eye as they played, give this record a cohesion few others have.If I had to sum up The Royal Gospel in a single term, I’d call it “slow burning soul”. It’s very bluesy for sure, but this goes further than your standard blues conventions. It’s hypnotic, nourishing, and stunningly well played.
ESSENTIALS: I’m Comin’ Home, Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire, Srand Up