The Record Box for Friday, May 16th

A SPECIAL LIFE John Mayall (Forty Below) *****The cool thing about most blues artists is the older they get the better they get.  At age 80 John Mayall, the Godfather of the 60’s British blues scene, has just released one of the best records of his career. As with most of Mayall’s albums. Life mixes a few originals with judiciously chosen cover tunes, this time by the likes of Albert King, Sonny Landreth and CJ Chenier.  Since his career resurgence, starting roughly with 1993’s Wake Up Call, he’s put out some great records like Along For The Ride and In The Palace of The King, but this new set impresses with its strength and simplicity as a straight up, no fancy tricks/ no bullshit blues album.  After many dozens of records, it’s reassuring that he can still find music like this within himself. Mayall’s singing feels stronger than it has in years, and I would lay the inevitable success of A Special Life at the feet of his band too.  Having disbanded The Bluesbreakers about 6 years ago to give himself the freedom to work with other musicians, John’s band since has included Jay Davenport on drums, Greg Rzab on bass and Rocky Athas on guitar, whose muscular soloing is a particular highlight of this record.  Zydeco legend CJ Chenier joins in on vocals and accordion on a couple of tracks. Exceptional musicianship aside, Life’s most attractive quality is its casual but self assured energy.  The songs don’t feel overly studied or too worked out- in fact the album was recorded in just 1 week last November.  I get the feeling Mayall and his band went into the studio not caring if the end product sold 50 or 50,000,000 copies, as long as they came out with the album they wanted- I’ll ask him when I talk to him next week.HIGHLIGHTS:  World Gone Crazy, Heartache   TURN BLUE The Black Keys (Nonesuch) *****True Blue is The Black Keys’ 8th full length album and the follow-up to 2011’s El Camino– another album I like a great deal.  Of the new record Patrick Carney says “We are always trying to push ourselves when we make a record…not repeat our previous work, but not abandon it either.” It’s a fine line to walk, dangerous even, but a thrill that fans have enjoyed since the beginning.Following up a multi-platinum record like El Camino is a daunting task but not, apparently, for these guys.  Turn Blue has a trippy vibe, even Floydian at times with touches of Philly soul, which is extremely inviting.  Of the album title, the band says it could mean any of a number of things, at given times;A) SuffocationB) SadnessC) Numbness from extreme coldD) A Cleveland late night TV host from the 60’s named GhoulardiE) All of the aboveIn other words, the kind of record perhaps Jack White wishes he had in him. No knock intended against Jack, but he seems to take himself so damned seriously at all times.Turn Blue is several different records all at the same time, depending on where you focus. Aside from A thru E above it’s a playful set with a jolly lo-fi late 60’s feel that just plain feels good.  How deep in or far down you want to go is entirely your call, depending on how closely you listen to the lyrics of a song like Year In Review.  True Blue speaks to me on so many levels, it feels like we’ve known each other forever.HIGHLIGHTS:  Year In Review, FeverWICKED The 24th Street Wailers (independent)  ***This, The Wailer’s 3rd full length album, isn’t just a blast from the past- it’s a wormhole from the present day directly back to the late 50’s/ early 60’s- it’s also big fun.Recorded in Austin, Texas and produced by Jimmie Vaughan’s bassist Billy Horton, Wicked has an authentic feel to it that other bands of this ilk aspire to.  11 originals and 2 covers here, all steeped in the band’s hardcore 40’s/50’s/60’s style party rock and good time R&B.  Initially I was put off by the lo-fi production and mono sound, concerned that my $50 headphones had shit the bed… but as the album played on I was taken in and thrown back to the simple joy of songs well written and expertly, joyously played.The 24th Street Wailers are Lindsay Beaver (drums, vocals, guitar), Emily Burgess (guitar), Mike Archer (bass, bg vocals), Jon Wong (tenor sax), with new addition Jesse Whitely on piano.  Looks like they have a busy summer ahead of them with appearances at jazz, folk and blues festivals across Canada including Regina, Saskatoon, Victoria, Vancouver, Thunder Bay, Halifax and Owen Sound.Wicked is the antithesis of slick, modern pop records- this feels like a bunch of musicians gathered around a single microphone, maybe getting up to have a blow after a few drinks.  Not to say the music sloppy, but rather that there’s a casual, unforced excellence which comes from being a master of your instrument.  These are the kind of songs you could imagine Fats Domino singing and, as a former drummer, the Dave Clark-style snare drum sound really catches my ear as it drives the songs.  I’d wager that you could mix the songs off of this disc in with a stack of stuff from the early 60’s and nobody would be able to tell they were from this year unless you told them.Blues radio personality and Stony Plain Records boss Holger Petersen praises them by saying “I love the band’s energy and deep understanding of blues, classic R&B and roots music”- can’t disagree with that.  Wicked is a real diamond in the rough.HIGHLIGHTS:  Shake It, Aim To Please SET THE WORLD ON FIRE Brent Johnson (Justin Time) *****A guitarist for Bryan Lee’s Blues Power Band for the last 8 years, Johnson finally steps out here for his greasy, inspirational solo debut, a combination of originals and masterful covers.  He’s from new Orleans and you can feel it in the grooves- extremely cool.Brent Johnson is a bluesman through and through, and while his music has a strong connection to blues traditions, he’s doesn’t want to come across as something he’s not. “I write music based on my experiences and the sounds I grew up with” he notes. “I never want to pretend that I had the same experiences as the old bluesmen did, so I’m not going to try to sound like them.  What I do is put the emphasis on the feeling of the music, the passion, the urgency, the direction- that’s the goal.”Set The World On Fire has the kind of explosive energy you can’t get with a beat up acoustic- it’s electric (and electrifying) blues with generous amounts of Hammond B-3 that sound better when your speakers start to sweat.  Johnson is a tasty player and his band is one of the most in-the-pocket combos I’ve heard in some time, but of course assists from guests like Alvin Youngblood Hart and Sonny Landreth don’t hurt either.Quite the range of emotions here within the blues framework too- from the Bayou flavored Bo Diddley beat that fuels Long Way Back To New Orleans (Landreth’s guest spot) to the slow burning regret and languid soloing on the epic As The Years Go Passing By, no stone is left unturned and the hair on your arms will stand up, more than once- mine sure did.High emotion and excellent playing, to me, is what great blues is all about and that describes Set The World On Fire.  This, gang, is blues perfection.HIGHLIGHTS:  As The Years Go Passing By, Long Way Back To New Orleans, The Hucklebuck GHOST STORIES Coldplay (Parlophone) ** ½ The new Coldplay, due out next week.  I gotta leave it to the fans to decide where Ghost Stories will ultimately fit when it comes to ranking the band’s work, but it doesn’t piss me off and that can be considered a victory.I bought first and, up until yesterday, my only Coldplay album in ’06.  It was called X&Y I believe, and I picked it up just to see what the fuss was all about.  That record left me no clues, as I listened to it several times and the music didn’t stick- even after repeated plays I could literally not remember  a single song.  So what changed?  After watching Chris Martin perform on the Hurricane Sandy benefit concert I thought “he seems like an okay guy, maybe I should give their next record a spin”- that simple.Ghost Stories is an okay album, but certainly not one to change the minds of those who have previously resisted what Coldplay has to offer.  The songs are gauzy and atmospheric, suitable perhaps for meditating or the cool down cycle in your aerobics class.  The book on these guys in the past was U2 wannabes, but here I would throw in an odd Bee Gees influence- but without the pop song craft smarts, auto-tuned vocals on Midnight notwithstanding.I applaud the band for sticking to their artistic vision, despite what dickheads like me have said about them all along.  Ghost Stories seems like the kind of album that requires undistracted listening to get into, and whose life has that kind of space?  Perhaps one night when the house is quiet I’ll turn the lights off, fire up the lava lamp and, with a tumbler of scotch at my side, journey to the centre of this thing- but not today.HIGHLIGHT:  Midnight TEN THOUSAND HORSES Corey Hart (Warner)  **The press release says “Canadian superstar to close out performing career with new album, sold out arena show, and self penned memoirs”.  I had no idea he was still performing and, decades after his last hits, it’s hard to imagine anyone giving a crap.I interviewed Corey Hart on the phone in the early 90’s around the release of his Attitude & Virtue album (which is actually really good) and he was good company, but I gotta wonder about Horses. 10 cuts in all, including 3 different versions of the title track and a couple of rough demos- doesn’t seem all that special.  Not bad songs, mind you, and if the pop music landscape were different today we might yet be hearing this stuff on the radio- but chances of anyone besides die-hard fans even finding this stuff are remote.Hart and his wife, Quebec singer Julie Masse, elected years ago to pull back from the music scene to pay more attention to raising their four children, and for that I applaud them.  Hart will continue in music by running his own label, Siena Records, so it remains to be seen if he can make an impact that way.  To my mind though, Corey is a master songsmith whose time has come and gone.  A better epitaph would have been a hits set with a handful of new tracks, but what the hell?  If you still have your old Corey Hart CD’s, you can put one together on your own.HIGHLIGHTS:  She’s So Good, Ten Thousand Horses (radio version) COLLECTION ONE: THE PEACOCK, THE DEER & THE MOON Bruce Ley (independent)  *** ½ After years of recording, working as a musical director, scoring for television and film, producing and writing arrangements for others, multi instrumentalist Bruce Ley has returned to where he started, to his first love- writing his own songs and performing live.  The first of 3 albums in a connected series, Collection One is a set of jazz inflected blues, soul and rock- and gentle, good company.Of the intention behind this album and the two that will follow, Bruce says “I have this thought that the world is much in need of music as both a balm for the soul and a wake up call for the spirit” and, as a lifelong music fanatic, I agree.  Off the top, Ley’s music hits me like a combination between Duke Robillard and the late Gaye Delorme- bluesy, intelligent and supple, like a gentle massage for your eardrums and your soul too. Produced by Ley and his wife Candice Bist, Collection One is smooth in the right places, and rough in the right places too, with stabbing horn lines giving the disc an uptown vibe.Lots of moods on this set, from the upbeat humor of Great Big Bottom to the slow blues of Broken Hearted Fool and the jaunty soulfulness of I Want You Back, a little something for everyone depending on your mood.  The musicianship overall is relaxed but precise, the sound of talented people really enjoying themselves.  I find myself enjoying Bruce’s guitar playing, and the background “Ooo’s” on Mayflower Blues have a distinct Steve Miller feel to them.Though mainly a blues record, Collection One offers a wide array of aural pleasures that reach casually outside of the genre.  In the accompanying booklet (which includes lyrics) Ley offers a one line explanation of each song’s intention.  Of Resisting The Pull for instance, he says “The onslaught of rabid consumerism threatens to smother us. Resist” and Great Big Bottom he calls “Complete silliness but so much fun.”  Musically a good time with some things to think about on the side here, I’m looking forward to hearing what he has to say next- stay tuned!HIGHLIGHTS:  Broken Hearted Fool, I Want You Back

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