The Record Box for Monday, October 27th

RIDE OUT Bob Seger (Capitol)Welcome to Bob Seger’s first album of new material since 2006’s Face The Promise.  Nothing much has changed in the world of  Detroit’s favorite son- his new record sounds like it would feel comfy next to any one of his classic 70’s efforts. Seger knows who he is and, as with AC/DC, there’s a lot to be said for consistency.Bob Seger does not have an experimental bone in his body- he knows who he is, understands what he does, and sticks to doing that very well.   When you first throw Ride Out into your CD changer, it will sound instantly familiar- even if it’s been awhile since you’ve checked out a Seger album beyond a greatest hits collection, it won’t feel like you’ve missed out on anything.  When you put a record by a guy like this, do you want any big surprises? Of course not.Bob and his current band- a talented bunch, but no big names you’d recognize- combine blue collar Saturday night rock & roll with country elements and expert song craft, perhaps a bit closer to Mellencamp’s middle America vibe than Seger’s own past, with songs that have a little dirt under their finger nails as they talk about blue collar pride (Detroit Made), religious belief (The Devil’s Right Hand, Adam & Eve, Gates of Eden) and more personal stuff like California Stars and You Take Me In. Want an environmental anthem?  Give It’s Your World a few spins.When you pick up any Bob Seger album you already have an idea of what it’s going to sound like.  Sure, I like an artist that can tip toe out to the edge and peak over, records that are chancy enough to ruin a career or take it to new levels- but by the same token I like throwing on something that I feel I already know.  There’s a comfort in that, particularly as the world devolves- which it is.  This is an emotional life raft, something to remind you of how you used to feel about life, or recall a more innocent time when all you had ahead of you was opportunity.  Ride Out isn’t his Wall it’s just another Bob Seger album, and I can’t think of a higher compliment.ESSENTIALS:  Detroit Made, California Stars, Gates Of Eden LIVE AT THE LEGENDARY HORSESHOE TAVERN The Jeff Healey Band (Convexe)Yet another posthumous chance to enjoy The Jeff Healey Band, this previously unreleased live recording from 1993 continues the mining of the vaults, playing their most loved hits and staple cover tunes at the time.  It’s an incendiary performance that is not to be missed.Complimented by two backup singers, Jeff and the band sound tight, energized.  Perhaps it’s the combination of the small venue and enthusiastic crowd or perhaps, as Healey mentions more than once from the stage, it’s the last gig of their then current tour.  Horseshoe is a nice mix of songs from their albums to that point, including The Roadhouse soundtrack, but the surprise and highlight of the album is a jaw-dropping cover of the BB King classic The Thrill Is Gone that concludes the album.As live tracks should be, these are recognizable yet different from the studio versions we are familiar with.  Their cover of ZZ Top’s Blue Jean Blues, covered on the JHB’s debut See The Light is a slow burning, sultry 8 minute sleaze jam that showcases Healey’s guitar playing.  As I listen to him play on this cut, it’s hard to believe that the blues was not his first love (vintage jazz was)- he played it so very, very well.  Jeff was clearly the star of the show- at this gig and in the band that bore his name, but let’s not diminish the contributions of his rhythm section- drummer Tom Stephen and bassist Joe Rockman… solid and uncomplicated, they are the perfect compliment to Healy’s pyrotechnics.Keyboards on this gig were provided by Washington Savage, and backup vocals came from Mischke and Toucu. As good as the band performances are, the solo acoustic versions of songs like That’s What They Say, You’re Coming Home and Angel Eyes are a particular treat- just Jeff’s baritone voice and his acoustic guitar playing- very tasty indeed.So, this is just the latest nugget from the vaults by Convexe, a company set up strictly to deal with Jeff Healey’s legacy, and distributed by Eagle Rock/ Universal.  Funny it should land on my desk at this particular time- just last weekend the missus & I watched Roadhouse on Blu-ray, in which the JHB play the house band at The Double Deuce.  In the special features section, Jeff says that the band recorded about 40 songs, just knocked ‘em out, for possible use in the movie- but only 4 are used on the soundtrack, possibly double that in the film itself.  So, I’m hoping that some of those great cover tunes will one day (ahem) ‘see the light’.  As a snapshot in time of The Jeff Healey Band in their prime and in their natural habitat, Live At The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern is a superior experience.ESSENTIAL:  The Thrill is Gone, Blue Jean Blues, That’s What They Say MELODY ROAD Neil Diamond (Capitol)I haven’t been this excited for a new album since Black Sabbath released 13 last year- yes, really.  Neil’s first album of new material in 6 years is a winning combination of the guy that wrote pop hits in the 60’s and 70’s and the guy that wrote darker confessionals on 12 Songs and Home Before Dark.  Same singer/ songwriter, but from different ends of the spectrum- an intriguing combination, to say the least.Diamond’s last two albums were produced by Rick Rubin.  They were sparse and bare bones affairs, as if Rubin was hoping to repeat the success he had with Johnny Cash’s American Recordings, a 9th inning career renaissance if there ever was one. Melody Road, however, was produced by Don Was, who is a much better fit for Neil.  As I listen to the album for the 2nd time today, it sounds and feels as though he has a firm grasp on Neil Diamond’s past as echoes of former glories weave themselves gently in and out of these new melodies.   Orchestrations and horn charts aren’t afraid to show themselves, creating lush melodies that longtime fans have enjoyed for decades, and something that was missing from recent albums.Diamond’s lyrics here, as with the Rubin produced discs, are more personal and direct, mostly true to life (or so it would seem) as opposed to telling a story just for the sake of having rhythmically sympathetic words to accompany Diamond’s basic acoustic guitar playing.  I’ve always enjoyed his voice but today at the age of 73 it is smoother and richer, wrapping itself around each lyric with the seasoned assurance of a master craftsman.  As Diamond says on the inside of the CD package, “I’ll have some tales to tell/ back from a place where dreams roam/ and back to you as well, from melody road.”Melody Road is a passionate, quietly excellent record as Diamond sticks to the new creative direction he found on 12 Songs– straight from the heart stuff that he’d only really hinted at before.   That he is so creatively vital and making great records at this stage of his career, hit play lists be damned, is commendable and inspiring.  This disc is moving me in ways that I am only just beginning to understand- I can’t wait to dig deeper and get to know it a lot better.ESSENTIAL:  Meloday Road, In Better Days, Seongah and JimmyNOSTALGIA Annie Lennox (Blue Note Records)At the risk of stating the obvious (like that’s ever stopped me before) this new Annie Lennox album, a set of cover tunes, is a gorgeous, luxurious, delectable treat.  She has one of those voices that could sing the phonebook and you’d still go “wow”.”Every singer loves the challenge of interpreting truly inspirational songs” Annie notes in the booklet. “Each one of these masterpieces stands as a lasting testimony to the brilliance of their creators- their individual power, beauty and poetry continues to stand the test of time.”  Some these songs could be considered as ‘the American Songbook’ fare, so I wonder if she was inspired by Rod Stewart’s visitation to the same territory.  From the choice of songs to the way she arranges and sings them, it’s clear that each of these songs is an important part of her musical makeup.I’ve loved Annie’s voice since hearing my first Eurythmics record in the 80’s, and throughout her solo career she has shied away somewhat from more bombastic fare in favor of more melodically delicate stuff, even on hits like Walking On Broken Glass.  More jazz here than I’m used to from her, but as she flexes her vocal chops on songs like Mood Indigo and Memphis In June, or delivers a masterful performance on the lyrically violent Billie Holiday classic Strange Fruit,  you get the impression that she isn’t just singing these songs, but she’s feeling them very deeply too and it takes your breath away.One hesitates to call Nostalgia a pop album, but at one time or another most of these songs were pop music.  Though I’m certain Ms. Lennox wants as many people as possible to hear this record and would enjoy having a smash hit on her hands, it wasn’t really designed for that.  She’s singing these songs from a deeper, more personal place, perhaps offering us a glimpse into what has made her the artist she is today.  At times romantic, reflective and disturbingly dark, this is a work of art to be enjoyed, absorbed and savored.ESSENTIAL: Strange Fruit, Summertime, The Nearness of You I’M FREE Jordan Officer (Select)Jordan Officer- a good lookin’ cat from Montreal with a slightly odd name and, frankly, I had zero expectations when I slipped this in the CD player.  You could have knocked me over with a feather-Jordan is a fine singer, exquisite guitarist, and he plays his blues with a sense of humor.  I’m Free is an absolute joy.Officer took advantage of a 6 month residency in New York City offered to him by the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Quebec, coming back with this captivating album under his arm.  The main body of it was recorded in two sessions with legendary drummers Charlie Drayton (Keith Richards, Herbie Hancock, Johnny Cash, Neil Young) and Tony Mason (Joan Osborne, Martha Wainwright, Norah Jones, Bo Diddley) resulting in a supple grooviness that you’ll find downright enchanting.From the talking blues that kicks off the album in the song At Least I’ve Got The Blues Jordan sounds relaxed and at home.  Sometimes when you throw on a CD you can hear the artist trying too hard to nail it down and missing it- you appreciate the effort but end up saying “Eh, too bad”.  I’m Free has magic to it, a subtle, mesmerizing, powerful thing.  When I heard the instrumental Jackie’s Tune for the first time, within the first couple of bars the hair on my arms was standing up- it’s the kind of stuff that makes you close your eyes and go “OH yeah…“Incase I’ve been too subtle here, let me just say that I love this record.  At the earliest opportunity I will feature a brace of songs in the spotlight section of my radio show How Blue Can You Get, and songs from this disc will be appearing on the program as long as they let me have that hour every Sunday at noon.  This isn’t the good stuff- it’s the great stuff.ESSENTIALS:  At Least I’ve Got The Blues, Jackie’s Tune, I’m Free HARD LUCK CHILD: A TRIBUTE TO SKIP JAMES Rory Block (Stony Plain)“Blues is not meant for one human being alone, but for the soul of humankind” Rory says on the back cover of her latest CD. It’s the fifth in her ‘mentor’ series, a string of albums dedicated to some of the blues’ most influential performers, certainly as far as her own music goes.  Full of love and respect, Hard Luck Child is exquisite.As with the other 4 discs in this series (I have them all), this is a solo acoustic performance.  When paying her respects to the music of these men that she has met along the way it seems right, as it’s how these songs began.  “Skip James is often referred to as a man of mystery” she writes in the liner notes.  “Some people have described him as melancholy, even unfriendly.  But in my 15 year old eyes he was deep, soulful and beautiful.”Rory Block is a gifted acoustic guitarist and, on this disc in particular, a sweet slide player which serves James’s music particularly well.  “To me, his music, with its intensity and haunting quality, was central to the incredibly powerful style we call country blues” she says.  “After all, blues was often about sorrow, hard times and heartache.  But it was also about joy, survival and even success in some cases.”  She brings these qualities out in this music with a power, grace and depth that James himself would approve of.  Rather than some dilettante dabbling in the genre, through Rory’s playing and beautifully expressive voice you know she really feels these blues, and has probably lived some of these haunted stories herself.With just guitar and voice there is nowhere for her to hide in these tracks, but in a way the naked honesty of such performances with very few overdubs is far more powerful than a full band would be.  As with the other 4 discs in Block’s Mentors series, Hard Luck Child: A Tribute To Skip James is raw and emotional, but never sloppy.  There’s been some great blues this year, and this set places very near the top of an impressive list.ESSENTIAL:  Hard Time Killing Floor Blues, Nehemiah James, Devil Got My Woman THE BLUES SOUL OF… Billy Boy Arnold (Stony Plain)Talk about classic blues!  The latest record for this legendary Chicago born harp player is a collection of originals, early R&B songs, blues/ jazz standards plus some 60’s & 70’s rare soul gems.  The Chicago skyline on the front cover with a seemingly giant Marine Band harp floating overhead says it all.There’s so much going on here it’s hard to know where to begin. Billy Boy’s voice, sounding lived in as it should at the age of 79, is like a smoother version of Sonny Boy Williamson. Billy’s harmonica playing, while expressive, isn’t crazy-wild, but it suits the tunes perfectly.  The backing band, which includes the Roomful Of Blues horn section and producer Duke Robillard on guitar, grooves with enthusiastic precision, giving Arnold the perfect platform to express himself from.”The chance to work with Billy Boy on this project was something I jumped on without a moment’s thought” say Robillard.  “Billy wanted to record an album full of songs that he had always loved, in a few different genres”, all of which have his unmistakable stamp.  This album rock, swings and grooves, sounding much like the past that is reflected by the songs themselves.  As a producer Robillard is an expert without peer at capturing that vibe, and Billy Boy Arnold is one of the few blues maestros still alive capable of expressing that musical history that he witnessed first hand and was an essential part of.If you want the story of Billy Boy Arnold’s life and career, you only need go as far as Robillard’s essay on the inside of the front cover.  It makes for a good read as you start getting into the album, leading to a deeper, more satisfying listening experience- and for music geeks like me, that’s what it’s all about.   This is a salt of the earth collection of tunes guaranteed to show you a good time.ESSENTIAL:  Ain’t That Just Like A Woman, Coal Man, Dance For Me Baby OUT AMONG THE STARS Johnny Cash (Columbia Legacy)I’ve always had respect for and enjoyed the music of Johnny Cash. This collection of previously unheard songs were recorded in ‘82 then shelved by Cash’s record company at the time- understandable, business-wise, because his career was on the skids at the time.  Discovered by his son John Carter Cash in 2012, they were released in March of this year.  I bought the vinyl after work today- should’ve done that months ago.Johnny Cash had just come out the other side of an addiction to pain pills and was attempting to put his music career back on track.  It seems the public wasn’t interested, and neither was Columbia Records. What they both missed is summed up best by John Carter on the back cover; “When I heard these recordings for the first time in so many years what I immediately noticed was the joy in his voice- his spirit was soaring- I heard the vibrant joy.  When these recordings were made he was as full of passion and love as any other time in his life- at a true prime.”  Put this on, and you’ll hear what he’s talking about.Musically speaking, this is old fashioned country- given the seismic shifts that music was going through in the early 80’s, I understand why this wasn’t considered cool at the time.  Some of the songs are corny, but there’s an emotional truth to them that make them work.  The original recordings were produced by Billy Sherrill, this actual release was curated by John Carter Cash and Steve Berkowitz, and the sound quality is exceptional.  You can hear Johnny having fun on cuts like I Drove her Out Of My Mind, and the duet with Waylon Jennings on the Hank Snow classic I’m Movin’ On is positively joyous.The early 80’s were a dark period in Johnny’s career, but he was still making good music.  I don’t think I’d count this among his top five albums, but certainly the top dozen.  It’s hard to believe he’s been gone 11 years (!) already, but this is a wonderful peek at a part of his life most of us missed.  And how lucky are we that we have a dozen new Cash tunes to absorb?  There is a 13th  here, a version of She Used To Love Me A Lot produced by and including Elvis Costello, and the LP comes with a code for a digital download too.  I like the darkness of Johnny’s American Recordings stuff, but this is a very welcome addition to the collection.ESSENTIALS: Out Among The Stars, (I’m Movin’ On (with Waylon), Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time (with June Carter Cash)POPULAR PROBLEMS Leonard Cohen (Columbia)Another vinyl album purchased today, as I decide to shift from replacing favorites I already own on CD to music that has not yet made it into my collection. I have not been a lifelong Leonard Cohen fan, thinking (and saying to anyone who would listen) that he’d be better off getting someone else to sing his tunes- as Jennifer Warnes did on Famous Blue Raincoat (with Stevie Ray Vaughan on guitar) in 1987… Albums like Old Ideas  and now Popular Problems (CD version is included here) are changing my mind.Cohen isn’t so much a singer as a storyteller.  Not unlike Tom Waits his cryptic lyrics are the subject of discussion by much smarter people than I, but there’s a certain world-weariness to the 80 year old poet’s delivery that draws you in to the middle of the story, almost before you realize it’s happening.  The instrumentation to this album is largely keyboard-based, sparse and hypnotic with the occasion dobro or acoustic guitar, intimate as only a Leonard Cohen album can be. In the opening track Slow, he sings “I’m slowing down the tune, I never liked it fast/ You want to get there soon, I want to get there last”.  Yeah- that kind of sums him up.Popular Problems is a languid pleasure, many of these songs like Nevermind feeling like they would have been at home on a soundtrack record for Breaking Bad.  Words like ‘dramatic” and ‘heavy’ apply to this set, surely amplified by Cohen’s low, rumbling voice and casual relationship with vocal melodies.  It must drive musical purists wiggy- these sparse, gorgeous melodies and Leonard’s voice with its disregard for the rules shouldn’t work, and yet somehow it does.  P-P is only the Montreal native’s 13th album, so it shouldn’t be too hard to dig back and see what else I can find.  Who knows?  Maybe I’m just at the age now where stuff like this really starts to make sense.ESSENTIALS:  Nevermind, Slow, Samson In New Orleans

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