FREAK DREAMS Slope (Century Media Records) ***+
That’s a great title for this hard rock and rap-ishness that collide on Freak Dreams for a taut, funkified muscular ride. Slope lists The Beastie Boys, Rage Against The Machine and early Chili Peppers as influences, but toss in Toronto’s Bootsauce and you have the complete picture. This is more than some wacky German musical alchemy, it’s serious rock & roll.
“Freak Dreams is a mix of all our individual influences and by far our most diverse album” the band says. “On some of the songs we did a lot of experimental elements that gives the record a different vibe and we couldn’t be more happy with the outcome!” There’s a musical tightness that mirrors TRHCP that I like, hard riffs against inventive bass playing and some great funk drumming. The lyrics delve into the personal struggles and unsatisfying situations we face in today’s world, particularly that we’re all being deceived by the system. That’s certainly how this year’s coming American federal election feels and I don’t even live there.
Never been a big Chilis fan but there’s something about the way Slope combines funk and metal that works WAYYY better- more like Rage than anything else… in fact it’s the riffing on Freak Dreams that pulled me in first. The mostly yelly rap vocals wear me down but the grooves are so huge and irresistible that even your Granny will feel compelled to jump out of her chair to bust a move. The quirky time signature changes keep you on your toes and thinking “what the hell are they going to do next?!?” Sometimes that can be annoying but with Freak Dreams that kind of action keeps you engaged and on your toes.
Freak Dreams is as much a metal record as it is anything else… it’s cheeky, adventurous and a lot to take in on a single listen, but I’ll bet Frank Zappa would’ve dug what they’re up to. Slope aren’t for everyone, not by a long shot- but those that love this album will do so deeply.
HOT TRACKS: Talk Big, Chasing Highs, It’s Tickin’
STRUNG OUT ON THRILLS Emanuel Casablanca (Vinyl Recording Group) *****
Blues with attitude- that’s Emanuel Casablanca’s new album, the appropriately titled Strung Out On Thrills, the follow-up to his 2022 debut Blood On My Hands. It’s a grinding, hypnotic, soul-shaking dark beauty and EC’s artistic confidence is palpable.
SOOT was produced by Casablanca and Paul Howells, and it’s fair to call this a blues/ rock beast. The Brooklyn guitarist has taken it as his mission to advance the blues and the results are arresting. He doesn’t just want to keep the genre alive, he wants it to grow. “Every roots-music genre has evolved” he notes. “It’s not enough to just keep something alive; we should want it to thrive and to do so we have to think differently and get proactive about it.” Emanuel has the ability, ingenuity and passion to be on the front lines of this war against musical complacency.
Strung Lout On Thrills has a thick, bold sound that makes for a compelling listen, mixing classic and modern techniques and sounds to push the blues forward. It’s not surprising to learn that Casablanca grew up in an artistic household. “My mother was a music teacher as well as the choir director at our church” he says. “Since my youth she had me in painting classes, acting classes and other stuff I didn’t necessarily appreciate. My siblings and I all had to play an instrument. My sisters sang in in a vocal group when I was a child. I feel a burning passion when it comes to making music.”
Casablanca has the chops to draw a number of A-listers to his side too numerous to mention here. His new album picks up where his debut left off and just runs. The tasty slide work has me reaching for the repeat button often, and his muscular soloing is a genuine hair-raising thrill for an aging blues nerd like yours truly. This multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, painter and actor is just getting warmed up. When you consider how accomplished and complete his first two albums are, particularly Strung Out On Thrills, the dude is just getting started and the sky is the limit.
HOT TRACKS: Dogshit, Pistolero, Conniver
SOUND EMPORIUM Lee Wilder (Blind Owl) ****
Sound Emporium is the wild, raucous debut from Arizona’s Lee Wilder. It’s ten songs that channel a myriad of genres, but also influences from film literature, and just life itself. The press info calls it “gospel-flecked Americana” but Lee himself refers to his debut as “a bi-polar gospel journey… just me struggling to be present, in the moment.” There’s a psychedelic vibe too.
Wilder was inspired by his parents, who played together in the popular California band Country Music machine, but it was watching La Bamba at the age of 9 that really got him into songwriting and playing guitar. After making a name for himself and his band in San Diego, by 2018 Lee found himself spiraling down into self-destruction. “After ruining a marriage and pretty much losing everything of emotional value in my life, I decided I needed to live a more purposeful life” he says. That’s important to know, to get a real emotional handle on Sound Emporium in general and the songs themselves in particular. It was this process that led him into the studio with producers Dan Cervantes and Jordan Andreen.
With its rough-and-tumble sound, Sound Emporium has an introspective street energy to it. Many of the lyrics were apparently in-the-moment cascades captured on the first or second take, covering themes of love, loss, and tales heard along the way. It’s kind of like a cross between The Doors, Johnny Cash and Matt Mays & El Torpedo, organic rock energy fed by stream of consciousness lyrics… not as weird as it sounds, but wild and definitely left of center in a Neil Young way.
Some of these songs really dig deep emotionally. Company Man is empathetic toward something many of us feel. “It’s just the result of me listening to people saying ‘man, I really feel stuck in life. I’ve got everything on paper, but in my core I’m just really not happy” Wilder says. Sound Emporium is one of those records that can help you seen the possibilities in your own life. “I’m hoping people will want to be a part of it- not just as a listener, but as an artist themselves” Lee says. “I believe there’s an artist in everybody.” Maybe it’s time to dust off that guitar in your closet or storage unit (ahem) and start exploring the possibilities.
HOT TRACKS: Company Man, Rollin’, Fever
THE NAKED TRUTH Tinsley Ellis (Alligator Records) *****
A haunting, spine-tingling blues excursion from one of the genre’s finest players- that’s The Naked Truth, the latest from Tinsley Ellis. This reminds me of the time I first heard Son House’s Death Letter when I bought that LP in the late 80’s; just a man and his guitar with nowhere to hide… primitive and emotionally naked; powerful. Think Skip James, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, because this disc is in that league.
Tinsley’s fans are well acquainted with his feral electric blues/rock and while The Naked Truth might be seen as a detour, he feels it’s an extension of his music as he taps into some raw blues. “This is a record I’ve always wanted to make, and one that my longtime fans have been asking for” he says. Ellis has traded his raucous, full-band workouts for this set of soul-searching acoustic blues. There is true beauty and strength in this thing, recorded live in the studio with a Martin D-35 that was a gift from his dad in 1969, and his 1937 National Steel guitars. Just the man, his voice and his guitars… it doesn’t get any more intimate than this.
The Naked Truth is 8 vocal cuts along with 4 instrumentals, including a version of Leo Kottke’s The Sailor’s Grave On The Prairie, a song he’s been playing for 50 years. The 9 original numbers are fueled by Ellis’s hard-earned wisdom from four plus decades on the road, sharing stages with a virtual who’s who of the blues world; a musical journey that started as it did for many with The Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. Though his gigs routinely feature an acoustic set, it was time for Tinsley to put aside his usual fire and brimstone approach to dig deep and get personal.. The delicate finger picking and acoustic slide are a real treat, but hardly a revelation if you’ve paid any attention at all to his stuff. This almost feels like a Bruce Cockburn set, particularly instrumentals like Easter Song.
When it’s just you, your voice and a guitar there’s an immediacy you can’t achieve any other way. When it comes to touring The Naked Truth Ellis refers to it as ‘two guitars and a car’. “When folks come to see me I’ll have the guitars I used on the record with me, so what the fans hear on the album is what they’ll get live” he says. “Now I’m the whole band and there’s nowhere to hide. It’s scary every single time I go up onstage alone- but nothing could be more honest.” The Naked Truth is as powerful as it is simple.
HOT TRACKS: Devil In the Room, Death Letter Blues, Easter Song
MOJOSOUL Gywn Ashton (Fab Tone Records) *****
A hard-charging set of acoustic blues from this Australian guitarist who calls the UK home. Mojosoul is passionate singing, stomping acoustic guitars beefed up by foot percussion including kick, hi-hats, tambourine and mouth harp. Ashton says it’s “my most personal album so far” and to that I’d add it’s real chip off the old Led Zeppelin III block in some respects.
In many ways Mojosoul is an atypical blues record. “It’s a song-driven, partly autobiographical album with occasional social commentary that has always been a part of the best blues songs down the years” Gwyn notes. It’s mostly acoustic guitars here except for one number where he uses an old 60’s electric Harmony H-75, and yet overall this is an intense record. Mojosoul is a rampant display of what Jimmy Page referred to as ‘light and shade’ in his own band’s music. Gwyn Ashton has a wide-ranging grip on the blues as he wanders from acoustic folksiness to ragtime, CCR-worthy swamp boogie and good old Delta blues.
This disc is fairly broad in lyrical content too, from an evocative number like Yesterday’s Me (Cool, Cool Water) to the boogie-rific 12,000 Miles From Home and the delicate restraint of the last number The Perfect Day to Sing The Blues. As a writer Ashton draws on his own life experiences to tell believable tales as MJS offers buckets of contrast, subtle dynamics and tone to spare, a neat trick for a guy using just his voice, a guitar and foot-powered rhythmic accompaniment. This is exactly the kind of stuff we’d want to hear when walking into some shabby, intimate bar covered with dark wooden paneling smelling of spilled beer and the ghost of cigarette smoke. It feels a lot like blue collar storytelling, this.
I tend to like my blues loud and electric, but an acoustic record like Mojosoul has stronger emotional pull as you find yourself drawn into the narratives Gwyn Ashton is spinning. Yup- 2024 is shaping up to be another great year for the blues, thanks to guys like Gwyn Ashton.
HOT TRACKS: Yesterday’s Me (Cool, Cool Water), The Perfect Day to Sing The Blues, 12,000 Miles From Home
ALL BLUES Ryan Russell Awram (bandcamp) ***+
It’s amazing what you can accomplish in a little room all by yourself. All Blues is the latest instrumental album by Awram, known for his soundtrack work for movies and TV. Indeed it plays like a soundtrack to a sleazy cop film or perhaps an action adventure romp where morals are called into question time and time again. This is a variety of enjoyable blues grooves.
All Blues is his 6th release, going back to 2019’s Instrumental by Design. As with previous productions, he plays guitars (acoustic & electric), electric bass, keyboards and harmonica, utilizing EZDrummer 3 for drum tracks- one of the better sounding drum programs I’ve heard- and Apple loops for percussion. From writing to playing to recording, he really is a one man band, and with a sight like Bandcamp it shows what you can do if you don’t have to kiss up to a record label. “I hope you enjoy All Blues as much as I did recording an all-blues album” he says on his bandcamp page. “Some of these songs go back many years to early demos.”
It makes sense that he does soundtrack work as the cuts on All Blues will have you visualizing your own scenes of various emotional impact. A number like Coin In The Slot sounds like a cool chase scene to me, and when I heard My Teacher Drinks on the first pass I asked him if a could use it as a new theme for my Hellhounds On My Trail blues radio show, and he graciously agreed. Of course listening to an instrumental album can be somewhat challenging, so do what I did; grab a few favorite tracks and sprinkle them throughout a playlist you enjoy while out for a walk… it really feeds the imagination.
For All Blues to really tickle your ear holes, it would help to like guitar-driven instrumental groove-based blues, and it just so happens that I do. When I have the time I intend to re-visit his page and go through the other 5 albums to see what buried treasures are to be found.
HOT TRACKS: My Teacher Drinks, Coin In The Slot, Shake Blues