The record Box for Monday, October 6th

ART OFFICIAL AGE Prince (Warner)   Not many artists this far into their career still generate work of any real interest, but Prince has done exactly that.  Returning to his original label so long after their epic legal battles is a big surprise.  Even more of a shock is how much I like his new music.Paving the way for the Minneapolis funk-meister’s renewal of relations with the Warner label is their return of the master recordings for Dirty Mind, 1999, Purple Rain and Sign O’ The Times.  The tiff that caused the rift, as I recall, was Prince wanting to release more music than the label was willing to put out- leading to such silliness as the temporary “Slave” tattoo that began appearing on his cheek, and him changing his name to a hieroglyph and insisting on being referred to as “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince”.  These shenanigans turned some off, me included- before today, the last Prince albums I added to my collection were a 2 disc “Best Of” around ’93, and his wonderful Batman soundtrack from the first Tim Burton film before that.Art Official Age is a contemporary concoction of soul, R&B and funk and, at the same time, classic Prince.  The arrangements have a minimalist feel yet feel more rounded than his 80’s and 90’s stuff, the lyrics are seductive, the judicious use of modern production techniques is never desperate or cloying and he hasn’t lost his sense of humor, as evidenced by the Chipmunk-like vocal that shows up in Breakfast Can Wait- oh to have been a fly on the studio wall that day!The blast of vintage funk & soul that is Art Official Age, particularly when considered against the backdrop of musical nervousness that passes for modern pop music, is singularly refreshing.  Romantic and seductive lyrics coupled with easy grooves and Prince’s sterling production makes for a long, cool drink of water that I find myself drawn to for reasons I can’t precisely explain- it just feels good.  This is the sound of Prince making a Prince record and, at the end of the day, we can always use more of that.SWEET SPOTS:  Breakdown, Breakfast Can Wait, The Gold StandardPLECTRUMELECTRUM 3RDEYEGIRL (Warner)  This is the 2nd new Prince album to be released this week, this time with his backing band 3rdEyeGirl.  Whereas Art Official Age is a Prince solo effort, Plectrumelectrum is a band record in the truest sense of the word.  It’s a different listening experience to be sure, recorded live on analog equipment with the funk more pronounced and a rock swagger too- definitely my favorite of the two releases.Many of the songs on this record were played live during Princes ‘Hit & Run’ tours in the UK earlier this year, which were praised by The Guardian noting that “These are performances by one of the greatest funk/rock bands ever.”  There’s a confidence and self-assurance in the performances on this record that are hard to miss.  Prince, along with guitarist Donna Grantis, drummer Hannah Ford Welton and bassist Ida Nelson groove and rock like they’ve been doing it together for years.  As tightly controlled as his solo stuff is, one can’t help but get the impression that Prince really enjoys letting his hair down like this in a band situation.  He’s still the focal point, but this is so much more than just a Prince album.Guitars are to the fore on Plectrumelectrum (which somewhat explains the title), moreso than on any Prince album that comes immediately to mind.  With the layered and textured production that he has perfected over the years it becomes easy to forget that, everything else aside, the little bastard is one hell of a guitar player.  One might think it’s a bit of stunt casting to have an all girl band behind him to, but make no mistake- these chicks have chops, and can flat-out rock.As much as I enjoyed Art Official Age, Plectrumelectrum is the disc I am mostly likely to slide into the car deck when it’s time to hit the highway.  Each is a different side of Prince, and this one reveals more of his inner-Hendrix within the context of a group setting.  The man likes to rock, and that’s okay with me.SWEET SPOTS:  Wow, Anotherlove, title track (an instrumental)LIVE Gary Clark Jr. (Warner)I’ve heard other blues performers speak his name, and one of the engineers at the radio station where I work turned me on to him. Gary Clark Jr. is one of the most exciting blues performers to come along since SRV, or even Hendrix before him.  Throw this on and turn it up, but be warned- there’s a good chance it will melt your speakers. Live was recorded over the last 18 months of non-stop touring at clubs, theatres, arenas and festivals, each cut pure and spontaneous with no overdubs or re-recording.  Gary and his band fly by the seat of their pants every night, working without a set list- preferring to be guided by the energy of the audience, and the results are incendiary.  Disc one starts with an 8 minute workout on Cat Fish Blues that had me before they even got to the first verse.  With only a few exceptions, most of these are in the 6-10 minute range, giving Clark and the guys several chances to really stretch out and show us how it’s done. Live is a nasty, greasy, blast furnace of a blues record- 2 discs where, urged on by the various audiences, the Gary Clark Band leaves it all on the stage.  I was tired and shagged out after the first spin through this amazing collection, one can only imagine how spent the band is when they finally come off the stage- and the audience at the shows too, for that matter.  Nothing gentle about Live– it gets in your face from the first number and pins you against the wall with sheer power until they’re done.The power of this set reminds me of my favorite live rock records by guys like Deep Purple and Grand Funk Railroad, albums that have stayed with me since first hearing them as a young teen.  The energy coming from this thing is totally off the charts, Gary Clark’s particular brand of voodoo packs more buzz than a truckload of Red Bull, making for an irresistible experience that ranks among the very best live albums by anybody, in any genre. Live is absolutely stunning.SWEET SPOTS:  Catfish Blues, Three O’Clock Blues, Third Stone From The Sun/ If You Love me Like You Say BRINGING BACK THE SUNSHINE Blake Shelton (Warner)I had no idea Shelton had a new album coming out until this showed up on my DMDS, a digital delivery system used by some record companies to get music to radio stations and album reviewers.  I’m not the biggest country fan by a long shot, but I’ve also never met a Blake Shelton album I didn’t like.With the start-up of the latest season of The Voice and having joined Barbra Streisand for a duet on her new album Partners (reviewed elsewhere in this column), it seems like the right tine for Bringing Back The Sunshine.  Shelton is a good ol’ boy in the best sense of the word, the sort of unassuming, uncomplicated and easy going type that you’d enjoy sitting down with and throwin’ back a couple of beers.  It’s that kind of charm that raises Sunshine to something more than being just another country record.Blake doesn’t stray far off the beam here when it comes to subject matter like love won and lost, the struggles any relationship of worth goes through, lust and longing.  After all he’s not trying to re-invent the wheel here, or going through a ‘dark phase’.  What we have with Sunshine is a dozen songs about life with an emphasis on romantic relationships- in many ways, a very typical country record.  The songs are well written and the production by his longtime collaborator and producer Scott Hendricks is perfect- uncluttered and mostly unadorned by the bells and whistles that can plague other artists of his stature in the genre.Blake Shelton, even though an incredibly humungoid star at this point in his career, strikes me as being a friendly, approachable, regular guy, and Bringing Back The Sunshine much carries that vibe.  There’s a good reason why he sells albums by the truckload- they’re really friggin’ good too.SWEET SPOTS:  Neon Light(first single), Buzzin’, Sangria R-KIVE Genesis (Warner)What an unexpected treat!  This three disc retrospective is one of the best such efforts I’ve come across since publishing my first album review in early 1990.  Not only does this give us a glimpse of every phase of the band, solo efforts are represented too, with 3 tracks from each.  At 37 cuts this baby is a long ‘un, but SO worth it- we can only hope that other bands are taking notes on how this was put together.If you’re a hardcore Genesis freak I can’t imagine there’ll be too many surprises waiting here.  To a more casual fan R-Kive is a journey of joyous discovery.  For many of us Genesis has always been the classic Phil Collins-era lineup.  During Peter Gabriel’s time fronting the band my taste in rock & roll was more basic than the prog-rock twaddle they were churning out, not unlike my relationship with pre-Dark Side Pink Floyd.  Even though the tracks that make up disc one, including a bizarre 23 minute cut called Supper’s Ready are decades old, for some of us it’s new music.The Phil Collins- era stuff on R-Kive speaks to me the loudest, rendering a previously purchased Best Of Genesis set mostly useless.  Where this really gets interesting, however, is the inclusion of solo hits by the band members including 3 each from original guitarist Steve Hackett, keyboardist Tony Banks, Phil, Peter and guitarist Mike Rutherford’s side project Mike & The Mechanics.  It’s an unusual move, but by including solo tunes from, the principal members of the band  R-Kive gives us a fuller, more rounded version of what it means to have been part of this thing called Genesis.There isn’t anything here that will turn Genesis-haters around- over the years many have (and probably still do) consider their stuff to be overwrought and pompous.  But if you’ve enjoyed any of their music in the last 30 or 40 years you’ll enjoy this.  I’m a casual fan at best and, as mentioned at the top, I missed the Peter Gabriel-era entirely so that’s the biggest bonus for me. For others of similar experience, you’ll find this an enjoyable voyage of discovery- it’s never too late to dust off a good song.SWEET SPOTS:  GENESIS TRACKS: The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, Turn It On Again, Land Of Confusion   SOLO TRACKS:  Easy Lover (Phil), Biko (Peter Gabriel), Every Day (Steve Hackett),  Siren (Tony Banks), In The Living Years (Mike & The Mechanics)BLOOD IS MY TRADEMARK Blood God (Massacre Records)  The 2nd album from this German metal outfit is balls-out rock & roll that I described to a buddy as classic Accept meets AC/DC, but now that I’ve lived with the album for a couple of weeks, I’d substitute AC/DC for maybe Iron Maiden.  Either way, this one hell of a rock & roll album.The band lists all of the above groups as influences, along with Motorhead and Judas Priest, so it’s no wonder I dig this.  The band, oddly, has included 2 versions of Blood Is My Trademark in the limited edition digi-pak- one with ‘normal’ vocals, sounding like original Accept singer Udo Dirkschneider by Mr. Debauchery, the other is the identical record with death metal vocals… a style I’ve never liked (sounds like Cookie Monster with a toothache) and, after listening to the first couple of songs on disc 2 to give it a chance, I will likely never spin it again.Blood Is My Trademark is jammed to the gunwales with the elements you want from a traditional metal album; violence, heroism and groove, with melodic hooks that you can hang your leather jacket on.  It sounds great on the 20 minute drive to work (mostly highway) and the fact that you can’t make out what Mr. Debauchery is saying more than half the time doesn’t matter- song titles like Slaughterman (the first single) and Warhordes From The Underworld give the imagination plenty to work with.  Love the names of the other band members too; Mr. Kill on guitars, Mr. Blood on bass, and Mr. Death on drums… don’t expect these guys to cover Neil Diamond anytime soon.Plenty of snarl and bite in the ten tracks on the standard version of Trademark.  I had never heard of Blood God before, but was taken with disc 1 immediately- it makes the pulse pound and the fist pump, like British Steel and Piece Of Mind did in the early 80’s as the rest of the world drowned in synthesizers… the more things change the more they stay the same, huh?  If you’re looking for a blast of 666% heavy metal to make the blood race as you stand up for what is right and true, Blood is My Trademark  (due to hit the streets Oct.27th) is the record that will do it.SWEET SPOTS:  Slaughterman, Sexy Music For Sexy People, The Monstermaker BELMONT BOULEVARD JW Jones (Blind Pig/ Warner/ Stony Plain)   This is the Ottawa born bluesman’s 7th release.  His last one, 2012’s Seventh Hour, hit #1 on BB King’s Bluesville on XM Sirius satellite radio, which led to Jones opening for BB at the Ottawa Bluesfest. Belmont Boulevard is his first for the fabled Blind Pig blues label, and it’s a sure bet that lots more people will be paying attention to this band.“This CD is all about getting out of my comfort zone musically and lyrically” Jones says, “working with a big producer (Tom Hambridge) and creating a high-energy experience that matches our live show” which goes a long way toward explaining why I like Belmont so much more than his last record.  Jones really does capture the energy of a live show with some rockin’ blues and mid-tempo ballads like Coming After Me– the only thing missing is cold beer and a dance floor.With praises coming in from people like Dan Aykroyd (calling the group ‘an amazing blues band’) and Charlie Musselwhite calling him “one of the best guitar players I’ve heard in a long time”, the blues world is already on to this cat and it’s up to the rest of us to catch up.  Belmont Boulevard is a tasty mix of Jones originals and covers of songs by Bobby Parker and Buddy Guy, along with contributions from producer Hambridge.  The album is raw without being ragged and energetic without losing control, familiar sounding and yet brand new all at the same time.  In other words, just about everything you’d hope for from a new blues album.When I got JW Jones’ last album it was okay but didn’t particularly move me- could`ve been in a crappy mood that week- but Belmont Boulevard is a different animal. It makes you want to get up and move (a dangerous thought for a 56 year old white guy), or maybe put on a snappy suit and head downtown to look for some rhythmic action. JW Jones has really hit his stride on this new record.SWEET SPOTS:  Cocaine Boy, Coming After Me, Magic West Side BoogieEXTRA JIMMIES Jimmy Thackery (Blind Pig)  This is a collection of newly re-mastered songs from three long out of print albums dating from ’92 to ’96, one of the most creative periods in Thackery’s career.  Fans will find this compilation an absolutely essential addition to their libraries.The out-of-print albums that these 13 songs come from are Empty Arms Motel, Wild Night Out and Switching Gears.  Citing guys like Otis Rush, Buddy Guy and Jimi Hendrix as influences, Thackery is a thrilling player, widely considered to be one of the finest blues guitarists of his generation.  More like Jimi than Stevie Ray, Thackery is a nimble and versatile player whose style mutates to suit the groove.  Before striking out on his own then putting together The Drivers, Jimmy made his bones on guitar with The Nighthawks from ’74 to ’87, but doing 300 gigs a year got to him and he decided to take control of his own career.For Thackery fans that don’t have the albums these tracks were culled from, Extra Jimmies is mandatory.  For fans of great blues guitar, those of us that enjoy it when a player can make the hair on your arms stand up, you need to hear this collection too.  There’s really nothing left to say here- even though these aren’t new songs this is one hell of an album, and as your blues brother from a different mother I advise you to pick it up when it hits the streets this week.SWEET SPOTS:  Lickin’ Gravy, You Upset me Baby, Trouble Man.  PARTNERS Streisand (Columbia)  As the title implies, Barbara’s new album is a record of duets with, of course, male singers and some of the finest pop vocalists of the last 50 years. Mostly songs that we would consider to be in the Great American Songbook style, this set is exquisite pleasure.I’ve long been a fan of Streisand’s voice, marveling at the purity of her natural instrument that, even now is the epitome of perfection.   Partners was produced by Babyface who, I’m sure, insisted that he be included as an artist as well.  The pair take on Streisand’s 70’s hit Evergreen to spectacular effect, combining delicate acoustic guitar figures with strings. This particular version is as good if not better than the original, which was a massive hit in the 70’s.Billy Joel’s New York State Of Mind is rendered as a ballad with some swing with Streisand and Joel, fellow New Yorkers, being comfortable as they circle around each other’s ad-libs, playful at times in their give and take- aware, I’m sure, that they were creating something special with this particular song.Some of Ms. Streisand’s more modern vocal partners on this set include John Mayer, Babyface, Josh Groban, Blake Shelton and Michael Buble, all of whom raise their game in order to share the mic with her.  Guys from more my era include Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Lionel Richie and Bryan Adams.  The posthumous duet with Elvis on Love Me tender is particularly touching, and if you get the deluxe version with the bonus disc, you’ll also hear Babs sing with Frank Sinatra, Barry Gibb and Barry Manilow.Some of Barbara’s previous hits like The Way We Were (with Lionel Richie) and What Kind of Fool (with John Legend) throw a new light no these songs we know so well, with her and Stevie Wonder’s take on People being rendered as a gentle samba as opposed to a straight up ballad.  It’s kind of like what Robert Plant and Jimmy Page did with Led Zeppelin tunes on their Unled-ed project- taking songs we already know so well and putting them in new frames- different genre, same idea.I’ve been a fan of Brabara Streisand’s voice since seeing her in Funny Girl as a young lad in the late 60’s and have remained so since then.  It seems remarkably unchanged in those 40-odd years, perhaps a bit deeper and richer, more satisfying today than it was then.  Partners is a collection of classic songs treated with the respect they deserve.  Some might dismiss this as old fashioned, but a great song is a great song.SWEET SPOTS:  People (w/ Stevie Wonder), New York State Of Mind (w/ Billy Joel),  It Had To Be You (w/ Michael Buble)GOTTA KEEP ROLLIN’ Rob Stone (Vizztone)If you’re looking for a blues album that’s just dying to show you a good time, this could be the album of the year. Full of the kind of upbeat blues that electrified Stone as a youngster, this is about as authentic as a white guy can get!After sneaking into a club at the age of 18 to catch harp great Charlie Musselwhite, Rob went out and bought a harmonica the next day and began listening to records by Little Walter, Big Walter Horton, Junior Wells, James Cotton and the two Sonny Boys.  He picked up the finer points of the instrument from ex-Muddy Waters sideman Jerry Portnoy.  So if you’re hearing Chicago when you throw this on- and you will hear Chicago- that’s why.Gotta Keep Rollin’ is Rob Stone’s 4th as a bandleader and first for this label, and he does his mentors proud.  The word that comes to mind as I listen to this disc for the 3rd time tonight is ‘rousing’.  As a singer Rob reminds me a lot of Tom Lavin- as a harp player, a cross between Charlie Musselwhite and James Cotton.  It sounds too like he’s got just the right guys in his band; Chris James on guitar, Patrick Rynn on bass, Willie “The Touch” Hayes on drums, along side a small and incredibly tight horn section, piano player David Maxell, and a special appearance by ex-Howlin’ Wolf ivory tickler Henry Gray.Guys don’t typically get rich playing this kind of music.  Aside from playing the occasional soft seater- and that’s usually reserved for blues royalty like BB King or Buddy Guy-  it’s mostly clubs for the likes of Rob Stone.  That’s a good thing in a way because that’s where tunes like these belong- in a small working person’s joint (ladies love the blues too), surrounded by the smell of sweat and stale beer.  Gotta Keep Rollin’ is the music of life, songs to pick yourself up with and keep on keepin’ on- even a sweet instrumental like Strollin’ With Sasquatch.  It’s the quintessential Saturday night blues record to throw on a get the joint jumpin’.SWEET SPOTS:  Wait Baby, Strollin’ With Sasquatch, Cold Winter Day BLUES SCARS Skyla Burrell Band (Vizztone)It’s the fifth album for this group, but my first encounter with the Skyla Burrell Band.  This disc is a set of gritty, well lived in blues with a little boogie in the engine room.Originally from California, Skyla now calls southern Pennsylvania home.  At age 15 she began singing with a classic soul band and was drawn to the vocal stylings of Aretha, Linda Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt, traits you can hear in her voice now.  The music they make is what they call “hard drivin’ blues”- song construction across these 15 tracks is not overly complicated, the songs delivering as much physical as emotional pleasure.  No less a blues authority than Downbeat praises the band as “Unpretentious… strength and understatement unite(d) in an easy, fluid balance without sucking up to rock”.Blues Scars is an emotional record that rocks, gets up and gets down at the same time.  Burrell is a decent guitarist but her real strength  is her voice… it’s got a bit of a lived in rasp that gives the tough lines emotion and strength; I kinda get the feeling she’s told people to just ‘fuck off’ at the top of her lungs more than once.  Inseparable from that strength, though, is an underlying vulnerability, a willingness to let it all hang out, emotionally speaking- just what we want from a blues singer.The Skyla Burrell band tours almost non-stop across the US, Canada and Europe- you can feel that particular brand of energy in these songs, it feels like they were written for the stage.  It’s also a solid if basic sounding record- no studio trickery or sweetening here, maybe some slide over dubs, but what you hear is what you get.  Blues Scars is the aural equivalent of a muscle car- classic style, powerful, and ready to blow your doors off.SWEET SPOTS:  Shut You Down, Love Letter In Blue, 6 Mile Cemetery Road FATTER THAN EVER Fathead (Electro-Fi)A new Fathead album is always cause for celebration.  This is their 9th (or their 10th?) album and, like those that have come before, Fatter Than Ever will show you a good time.This disc is an energetic blend of blues peppered liberally with elements of R&B, funk, gospel- tinged soul and feel good rock & roll.  Upon its release in July FTE held the #1 album spot on the Roots Music Report Canadian Charts for four weeks in a row, and hit #6 on comparable charts in the US.  And no wonder- this is that rare blues album that makes it impossible to feel down in the dumps as long as it is playing on your stereo.Great band here and I’m a fan of Al Lerman’s harp playing, but it’s the sense of fun and joy that really lifts up this album, not unlike Elvin Bishop’s latest album Can’t Even Do Wrong Right– you get the feeling that each really enjoyed putting their respective records together.  It must be, at least in part, the confidence that comes from being masters of their instruments- no showboating to speak of, with each player assured in their roles and serving the songs, giving them just what they need… nothing more, nothing less.Fatter Than Ever is as fine a slice of boogie ‘n’ blues as your likely to hear, a Friday night record if there ever was one, you can almost taste it can’t you? Me too.  It’s the kind of blues you want to throw on when you feel like dancing your ass off, or you have a lot of stuff to get done- it does the job either way,SWEET SPOTS:  Twenty Second Chances, Evil Eye, Throw Me A Bone

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