Rock Doctor Album Reviews – May 1st-2016

LOVE WINS AGAIN Janiva Magness (Blue Elan)\This disc, out since early April, marks my 3rd encounter with Janiva’s music, after Stronger For It and The Devil Is An Angel Too on the venerable Chicago based blues label Alligator.  Love Wins Again is soulful, playful, down ‘n’ dirty- more soul than blues, it’s an infectious set of tunes.Love is an energetic, juicy, great sounding record, thanks to engineer/producer Dave Darling, a 4 time Grammy nominated producer who’s also worked with people like Glen Campbell and Brian Setzer.  This disc marks his fifth collaboration with Magness, and he obviously knows how to pull the best out of her.  She’s not a static artist, content to replicate her previous successes- each record is a leap forward in terms of performance and song writing, and Dave has become an expert at coaxing that from her and putting it in the grooves.“The voice is something that allows us to communicate past the limitations of the left brain” Magness says.  “The ability sing is a gift, and I love nothing more than sharing it.”  Others have noticed too- as one of the most beloved performers in the Americana, blues and roots music world, Janiva has been nominated for 25 blues awards (with 7 wins) and is only the second woman to win the “BB King Entertainer of The year” award.  All of which goes to say she is a seriously talented singer and songwriter worthy of our attention.She has no time to rest on her laurels, choosing instead to make wildly passionate and soulful albums like this.  One of the tracks here is a cover of CCR’s Long As I Can See The Light that I would put up against Joe Cocker’s version, it’s that good.  It all boils down to this; Love Wins Again s one of the most passionate, soul-drenched albums to come along, and only a fool would not want to get next to this.  It’s a disc that will take you to church and back again as it wraps its loving arms around you- very cool stuff.ESSENTIALS:  Moth To A Flame, Love Wins Again, Long As I Can See The Light PROMISED LAND OR BUST Moreland & Arbuckle (Alligator)A nasty, greasy bit roadhouse blues, and I mean that in the very best possible way.  Praised by USA Today as “Raw, dirty, primal and infectious”, Promised Land Or Bust may be the most fun you have all year.Moreland & Arbuckle are a trio from Kansas without a bass player that tears it up and burns it down. Aaron Moreland, the guitarist, describes their music as “gritty blues and roots rock from the heartland” and that feels about right. The band electrifies raw Delta and Mississippi hill country blues, folk and traditional country with a kind of punk rock/ garage band energy. “The new album is consciously traditional but still has that signature drive and power that we have crafted over the past 13 years” notes Moreland.Alligator founder and president Bruce Iglaur says “I’ve watched this band grow from talented interpreters of raw, traditional blues into creators of fresh, original roots-based songs.  Live, the energy just pours out of them.”  Kind makes you want to give this a listen, doesn’t it?While the magic in this band is clearly a shared affair, what made my ears stand up and take notice was vocalist Dustin Arbuckle’s sinister blues harp.  Nasty and full of attitude, it conveys boatloads of sass and feeling.  Sounding overdriven through a cheap amp the way it should be done it’s saucy and compelling.  They’ve shared stages with ZZ Top, George Thorogood, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray and Los Lonely Boys across the US and Canada.  About half of the songs are originals that sit comfortably here along side blues standards like I’m A King Bee.To sum it all up, Promised Land Or Bust is one hell of an album full of energy, spit and attitude. Arbuckle calls it “our best album yet” and says “we continue to evolve musically outside of the box we started in, but the bedrock- the blues- is always there.  We consciously went back to where we started and it took us to a brand new place.”  This is not to be missed.ESSENTIALS:  I’m A King Bee, Mean & Evil, Why’d She Have To Go DETOUR Cyndi Lauper (Warner)Loved her pop stuff in the 80’s, saw her open for (and upstage) Cher on the Believe tour, and have always thought Cyndi Lauper to be a cool chick.  Even so, her new album is an unexpected- delightfully unexpected- collection of classic country songs.Cyndi says that recording a country album has been a dream of hers for many years. “When I was a really young kid, country music was pop music, so this is what we grew up listening to” she says. “These songs are part of my earliest memories so it has been an absolute thrill to revisit them.”  She’s talking about songs made famous by ladies like Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson.  The catch is, that there is no catch.  If you’re expecting Lauper to treat these songs with anything but respect then you’ll be disappointed.  There are no sly “wink, wink” moments here- she clearly loves the music.Detour is her first album for Sire Records and was executive produced by label founder Seymour Stein.  Cyndi duets with several guests on the record including Emmylou Harris on the title track, Willie Nelson on Night Life, a song he wrote over 50 years ago, Vince Gill on Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty’s You’re The Reason Our Kids Are Ugly and Alison Krauss on Dolly’s Hard Candy Christmas. The participation of such country royalty lends the disc an air of authenticity and approval- hardly necessary, but nice to have.Clearly the sweet spot on this album is the pair of Patsy Cline covers, Walking After Midnight and I Fall To Pieces.  “I spent a lot of time in my room singing with Patsy” Cyndi says. “I had to sing a Patsy Cline song- or two- because her voice was like one of my girlfriends.  That’s how close I felt to her.”I would never have guessed previously that Cyndi Lauper has such an affinity and fondness for country music, but having now listened to the album several times, it makes complete sense.  If you have a taste for classic country (it’s the kind of country I prefer), then this album will treat you very well.  If you’re a Cyndi Lauper fan you’ll be delightfully surprised- but then we’re used to surprises from her, aren’t we?ESSENTIALS:  Walking After Midnight, You’re The reason Our Kids Are Ugly, Night Life MALTED MILK Tim Bastmeyer (independent)This digital single is a dynamite take on an old blues classic by Bastmeyer that I’ve already feature on one of my radio shows.  With permission from Robert Johnson’s family Tim has rebuilt this song as a duet with the late, great bluesman, and given it a contemporary spin at the same time.  He came up with it for Paul Reddick’s Cobalt Prize blues song writing competition and nailed second prize for his efforts at the 2016 Maple Blues Awards.  If you’d like to get your hands on this song (and I think you should), here’s the link; WORLD MOVES ON The Hitman Blues Band (Nerus Records)I suppose we can expect greasy music from The Big Apple, and that’s how The Hitman Blues Band comes across on their latest album. 7 new original songs, one cover and 5 reworked original tunes later, The World Moves On has got some Chicago soul goin’ on.Though I’ve never heard of this group before, the lineage of the players, both in the band and special guests, is impressive;Kevin Bents, keyboards- Spin Doctors, Boz Scaggs, Phoebe SnowBernard Purdie- drums Aretha Franklin, Steely Dan, BB King, Joe CockerBobbie Forrester (keys)- Ruth Brown, Lena HorneRay Alexander (vibes)- George Shearing, Stan Getz, Mel TormeRichard Crooks (drums)- Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Leonard CohenIf reading that list doesn’t make you want to check this out, give your head a shake!  Russell “Hitman” Alexander is on guitar and vocals, leading the gang through a spirited batch of songs that makes sitting still almost impossible  The aforementioned cover song, Willie Dixon’s Hoochie Coochie Man, most famously a hit for Muddy Waters, blends in quite nicely with the other tracks Russell has come up with here.Did I call this greasy?  Perhaps ‘supple’ would be a better word.  I love Alexander’s nasty slide work on songs like Moving On, and his soloing is fairly to the point- feeding the song what it needs without any excessive showing off, the kind of stuff that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.  The horn section along with the sweet backup vocals from Joanna Alexander and Nancy Hamilton give much of this disc an uptown feel, and there’s also a swagger and confidence in the playing of all involved that make this set compelling.The World Moves On is Chicago-style blues with soul, played with a casual expertise that makes it a pleasure to listen to… I can’t wait to share some of this on the air.ESSENTIALS:  Hoochie Coochie Man, Moving On, The World Moves On JUST THE WAY THAT I AM Dave Insley (DIR)Talk about a breath of fresh air in a jaded world where disgruntled country performers are trying real hard to be rock stars.  Insley is kickin’ it old school on his latest album, his 4th solo set and first since 2008, delivering a gaggle of vintage sounding and utterly charming country songs.As mentioned above in my review of Cyndi Lauper classic is the kind of country I like best, and that Dave Insley does very, very well.  Gotta love that smoky baritone voice, reminding me of a cross between Willie Nelson (maybe it’s that they’re both from Texas) and Conway Twitty or Ian Tyson.  Like Tyson’s stuff, this is great storytelling music, something that few genres do better than country.  Love the band too, masters at the relaxed, laid back insistent grooving needed to put this kind of music across.As much old fashioned charm as Just The Way That I Am has, there’s an effortless and relentless swing to this disc that’s impossible not to like.  Insley’s modern voice and old fashioned approach have earned him a singular position in the much broader field of Americana music and, like Tyson, when he’s singing you get the feeling that he’s digging out what’s in his heart.  This is thinking man’s country- intelligent, thought provoking story songs that grow more satisfying with each listen- like a good Gene McLellan song.It would be easy to dismiss some of these songs as ‘cornball’, but there’s a directness to the stories Dave is telling that is impossible not to embrace.  Some of them will have you smiling while others will have you nodding your head in a “been there, done that” kind of way.  Those that know me as a ‘rock guy’ (which is how I mostly define myself) might be shocked to find me liking this, but I do- a whole lot.ESSENTIALS:  Dead And Gone, Drinkin’ Wine And Staring At The Phone, Everything Must Go DUSTY ROAD Brothers Brown (Funky Joint Records)With this band’s pedigree, no wonder this is one of the best sounding albums I’ve heard all year.  Fronted by TWO guys named Paul Brown- one a double Grammy winning producer, the other a Grammy nominated producer, keyboard player songwriter based in Nashville- Dusty Road is one of those ‘out of nowhere’ surprises that makes writing album reviews worthwhile and, occasionally, thrilling.The band is completed by a killer rhythm section in bassist David Santos (Billy Joel, Elton John, John Fogerty) and drummer Peter Young, who has toured with Loretta Lynn and The Burrito Brothers.  The way Dusty Road hangs together, the unusual recording method is a surprise. “It’s hard to imagine the four of us were never in the same room when the album was recorded” says guitarist Paul Brown, “but we have a shared vocabulary in Americana, jazz, rock, blues and R&B that lets us blend our talents as musicians and co-writers.”  Good news for us, the band was able to create so much music that they already have another album in the can.Dusty Road can best be described as a mix of blues, rock and country played with jazz chops.  The rhythm section is light on its feet giving the music room to flex, and Paul Brown’s guitar work, particularly his solos, is way tasty, with Little Feat guitarist Paul Barrere dropping in to lay some soulful slide on Hurricane.  There’s an unhurried confidence to this disc that you’ll find attractive and compelling, with an undercurrent of R&B muscle that makes the whole package really work.  The year isn’t even half over and I’ve already heard a lot of great music- this Brothers Brown debut out is surely near the very top of the list.ESSENTIALS:  Can’t Outrun The Blues, Hurricane, Sweet Cadillac BREAKING FREE Layla Zoe (Ruf)Oh wow- this is one of the most soulful, gut-wrenching albums you’ll hear ever.  Not sure how a German blues label went about finding this Canadian singer/ songwriter, but I’m sure glad they did.  This is her 10th album, and frankly I’m shocked that I’ve not heard of her before this.As a singer, Zoe is a cross between Sass Jordan and Janis Joplin. “I want people to get in touch with the feelings they bury deep inside their hearts” she says.  “I rip people’s hearts out, then put them back in”, and it only takes one listen to know that she’s not making promises she can’t keep- this is gut-wrenching, roof-raising music.The creative nucleus here is Zoe, along with guitarist Jan Laacks, who produced the record and wrote all the music for her to put lyrics on. “I’m very proud of this album” Layla notes, and she damn well should be. “The songs get stuck in your head, which is usually the sign of a good one.  Jan is so talented and really knows me after the last three years on tour.”  Catchy songs aside, though, I just love the way the album sounds- big, full and rich without being saddled with flabby subsonics, just real meaty.Quite simply Layla Zoe is a powerhouse blues vocalist, and Breaking Free is a formidable set of songs.  She reveals a tender side on songs like Sweet Angel and a cool remake of The Stones’ Wild Horses, but when she cranks it up on a blistering track like Highway Of Tears it’s wise to just get of her way.  A major, major talent is on display in her natural habitat here, and it’s only a matter of time before everyone else finds out.ESSENTIALS:  Highway Of Tears, Backstage Queen, Wild Horses THE BEAUTIFUL LOWDOWN Curtis Salgado (Alligator)Muscular, soulful vocals powering some of the most soulful R&B this side of Muscle Shoals… that’s what you have in store when you slide The Beautiful Lowdown into your CD player.  Alligator is known as the home of “houserockin’ music”, and Salgado’s latest, which he wrote or co-wrote in its entirety, qualifies with room to spare.The man that inspired John Belushi to become “Joliet” Jake Blues, although 40 years into his career, doesn’t believe in coasting- he worked his ass off on this record.  “My heart and soul are in this” he says proudly, “I worked my tail off and let the songs lead the way.”  As for the title, Curtis explains “During a recent show I turned to my guitarist and said ‘play something lowdown, but make it beautiful’.  Then I thought, ‘keep that.’ “Over the space of 12 songs- 11 originals and a great cover of Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s Hook Me Up that closes out the disc, Salgado goes from the Van Morrison-esque Nothing In Particular to the funk grooves of My Girlfriend to the driving Hard To Feel The Same About Love to a brush with reggae on Simple Enough with ease.  As entertaining and deep as this disc is diverse, Living Blues proclaims “Salgado navigates dynamic soul , swaying balladry, and funky grooves with equal confidence.  He is a formidable performer.” Yeah.If you must throw a label on Beautiful Lowdown then I suppose it’s a soulful R&B album that is both riveting and entertaining by virtue of Salgado being indisputably at the top of his considerable game.  There’s something genuinely invigorating about witnessing an extremely talented artist execute his gifts with a quiet, certain confidence, and that pretty much sums up how I feel about this album.  It’s a beautiful, lowdown thing.ESSENTIALS:  Simple Enough, Walk A Mile In My Blues, Low Down Dirty Shame BLUES HEAVEN Mark May Band & The Soul Satyr Horns (Connor Ray/ Bad Fork Records)Who ever thought Ohio would be a place to find great blues?  That’s where Mark May comes from and this, his 6th album, is a sweet and delightful surprise.“I think Blues Heaven is the most truthful CD that I’ve ever done” says Mark. While there are songs on the album about the good times that I’ve had, others express my own personal struggles and tell the story of my life.  I really enjoyed working with my band, The Soul Satyr Horns, and some of my friends who contributed in a big way.”   From the Albert Collins-like Boom Boom that kicks off the record to the touching title track, Blue Heaven is full of sweet playing- almost an embarrassment of riches.From deep blues to playful country to everything in between, this disc is a blast to listen to, and the lively horn section gives the music a lift you might not necessarily expect from the blues.  Make no mistake, this is good time-y music. May is a fine blues singer and his guitar playing- particularly the solos- is likely as not to raise goose bumps without warning.  No matter what kind of groove he’s working across these 13 cuts, he sounds at ease and in his element- the music just seems t flow right through him.Mark May’s interest in playing began as a youngster as his older brother turned him onto The Beatles and Hendrix, and with his mother and an uncle being country/ bluegrass singers and songwriters he had a pretty varied musical education.  I’ll leave the final word to one of his earliest supporters, the great Dickie Betts. “When I heard his first CD, I was blown away” Betts commented. “Mark is one of the best blues/rock artists to come along in years!  With great singing, song writing and guitar playing, he reminds me of everyone from Albert Collins to Stevie Ray to Carlos Santana.”So, yeah- Blues Heaven is a seriously fine piece of work, and you’d be doing yourself a huge favour by picking up a copy.ESSENTIALS:  Boom Boom, Blues Heaven, Almost Like A SuicideBOXES Goo Goo Dolls (Warner Music)The latest album from Goo Goo Dolls, out since May 6th, is their 11th.  It may or may not also be worth noting that this year marks their 30th anniversary.  They’ve certainly come a long way since their days as a scrappy band from Buffalo.Though I’ve heard a number of their songs on the radio I’ve never cozied up to the Goos, always considering their name as monumentally dumb- but then I like Kiss, so who am I to judge?  GGD has been making pleasant pop music for decades now, and Boxes comes across like U2 meets Coldplay- both highly successful, of course.  Singer/ guitarist Johnny Rzeznik tapped some of his favorite song writers and producers to put this together, including Gregg Wattenberg (who also co-wrote 4 songs on 2013’s Magnetic), Wattenberg’s production partner Derek Fuhrmann, and Drew Pearson, who has worked with Philip Philips and OneRepublic.Boxes strikes me as a collection of songs with big choruses constructed to elicit an emotional response which seems a bit a la carte, but who am I to argue with a multi-platinum success story?  To me many of these songs might sound like the sort of thing playing in the background while attractive young people gambol about a Japanese sub-compact vehicle in a TV commercial, but I suspect that said young people are The Goo’s target audience, not an old man sitting in his jammy pants in a poorly lit basement, tapping on a keyboard with two fingers and wondering what the fuss is about.Lest I be giving you the impression I hate this album that’s not true, but I will admit that it doesn’t seem to reach me on any particularly deep level.  Boxes is a pleasant enough sounding album, just not exactly my cuppa- more like the kind of thing the wife would enjoy listening to.  Sorry Johnny.ESSENTIALS:  Prayer In My Pocket, Over And Over LOVE IN A HURRICANE The Mighty Orq (Connor Ray Music)It feels like I just walked in on a smorg somewhere in the American south.  This, the label debut for the Houston-based 2016 International Blues Challenge finalist, is a mighty combination of bluesy styles in one hellaciously fine record.“I’ve finally been able to combine all the elements of my various performance styles in one place’ says Orq (a nickname from high school) about Love In A Hurricane.  “There are rockers, singer-songwriter tunes, solo acoustic and cigar box songs, as well as southern rock, gospel and blues.  It feels like the most complete portrait to date of all the musical styles I love to play.”  I didn’t even get through the first spin before realizing it’s a winning combo.  Not exactly like the Stones, but with a similarly broad-based foundation to draw from.There’s a lot to sink your teeth into here, from that wonderfully smoky, soulful singing voice that sounds like a black Elvis Costello to the musicians in his band; The Mighty Orq (vocals, guitars), Jimmy Rose (drums, percussion, mandolin), Barry Seelen (organ, piano, accordion) and Terry Dry (bass).  Covers of note on this disc include Freddie King’s Pack It Up and Death Letter Blues from Son House, but this album is far from a downer. On songs like You’re In Love the guys sound downright jovial as they ride a tasty zydeco groove.  Yeah The Mighty Orq can get down where the blues turn dark, but overall Love In A Hurricane feels very much like a celebration of life- sometimes we forget the blues can be that way too.You’ll dig what this brings to the table and you’ll enjoy having it around- I promise.ESSENTIALS:  You’re In Love, Sweet In Between, Love In A Hurricane


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