THE ACOUSTIC BLUES & ROOTS OF… Duke Robillard (Stony Plain) **** +
The latest from this Grammy nominated and multi-blues music award winning artist is exactly what it says it is. Containing songs that have informed, influenced and inspired him during his own 50 year career, Robillard covers songs from the likes of Big Bill Broonzy, Sleepy John Estes, Hank Williams and more. It’s also one of the richest collections of his career.
“This project has been about a decade in the making for various reasons I won’t go into here” Duke explains in the liner notes. “As many of you know I am, and always have been, a huge fan of American roots music in its entirety. Blues, ragtime, early jazz, Appalachian music, early country, swing, honky-tonk, folk, R&B, soul, New Orleans music, rock & roll and all kinds of roots music have always moved and inspire me the most” he says.
Continuing, Duke declares “With this album I honour many of the pioneers of true American music, from close to the beginning of recorded music to the 1940’s. This is the time period I love the most and find a never-ending river of new music to discover, enjoy, and be influenced/ inspired by.” Along with the above interview quotes, the liner notes also include brief notes on each track and why he felt them important enough to include here, taking you even deeper into the music- something us music geeks can never get enough of.
If you’re a fan of Robillard’s stuff nothing here will surprise you particularly, but as he is covering more than just the blues you might want to put your ears through some stretching exercises. Guests helping Duke realize this panoramic musical vision include Maria Muldaur, former Muddy Waters band member Jerry Portnoy on the harp, and the late, great Kansas City piano man Jay McShann, along with a list of others too long to bring up here. Recorded mostly at Robillard’s own Duke’s Mood Room and produced by himself with some help from Holger Petersen, this zesty collection of vintage songs (along with a smattering of originals and a cover of Robbie Robertson’s Evangeline) is loaded with great, timeless songs and melodies.
The Acoustic Blues… brings with it a certain carefree joy that is particular to the music of the 20’s thru 40’s that lifts this from being a scholarly music exercise to just plain fun. I’ve been a fan of Duke’s for some time and have maybe a dozen of his albums. I’ve enjoyed them all, but don’t remember the last time I smiled this much listening to one of his CD’s. Excellent production, wonderful performances and inspired choices make this one of THE albums of the year for me.
ESSENTIALS: Saint Louis Blues, Left Handed, Let’s Turn Back The Years, Backyard Paradise
RICH IN LOVE Colin Linden (Stony Plain) *****
It’s the first solo record since 2009 for this 8 time Juno Award winning artist and producer. As a player he’s been a part of some truly great records by Bruce Cockburn, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Gregg Allman and Bob Dylan- he’s produced some of my very favourite Cockburn stuff and Colin James’s latest, Hearts On Fire. With Rich In Love, he lives up to his track record- this is one of the very finest albums of the year.
“I felt like so much has changed since my last studio album” Linden says. “It was as if I was writing from a different place for these songs. At some point I even began to suffer insomnia, and several of the songs were composed literally in the middle of the night.” A genuine renaissance man of roots music, Colin’s solo work is close to that of his other band Blackie & The Rodeo Kings- acoustic grooves and heartfelt lyrics that reach the heart almost effortlessly. If you enjoy the work of Sonny Landreth, Ry Cooder and Buddy Miller (who worked with Robert Plant on a couple of records), then the songs on this disc have things to say that you’ll want to hear.
There are some different styles throughout these dozen songs, but as Colin himself says “while the music on my new album covers a lot of influences, I still think of myself as a blues player, whatever I’m doing”, and that’s the way it feels from this side too. No More Cheap Wine sounds like it could’ve come from the late Warren Zevon and the murder ballad Delia Come For Me sounds like its as old as the hills but its inspiration is much more recent. “It was partially inspired by the 2011 execution in Georgia of Troy Davis for murder, whose subsequent investigation raised serious questions about his guilt; a case which reminded me of the old country blues ballad Deliah” Linden notes.
Colin’s band , affectionately referred to as The Rotting Matadors, includes John Dymond on bass and Gary Craig on drums. Guests on Rich In Love include ex-SRV keyboard player Reese Wynans, Amy Helm, organist Tim Lauer and blues harp legend Charlie Musselwhite. Some great stories of love, lust, forlorn longing- you know, ‘life’- painted by a sonic palate that includes blues, rock, roots and country. Rich In Love is one of those rare albums that I simply cannot recommend highly enough.
ESSENTIALS: Delia Come For Me, I Made A Promise, No More Cheap Wine
THE BOOK OF SOULS Iron Maiden (Parlophone) *****
Iron Maiden’s latest, their first album in 5 years, is also their first double album. The shortest track is 5:01, the longest 18:05- since when have they been a jam band? Interesting, though, that the press info I received with the download says nothing about the music itself and rather a lot about the 747-400 Jumbo Jet that the band will be using for next year’s world tour, to be piloted by lead singer Bruce Dickinson, a trained commercial pilot who his currently taking the required courses to do just that. Perhaps the music is supposed to speak for itself, and that it does- loud and clear.
Overall, I’m quite pleased with The Book Of Souls, and any reticence I feel toward it has more to do with the length of some of the tracks and with the album itself, making the album seem rather self indulgent. After Dickinson’s recent bought with tongue cancer (says he got it from oral sex) I suppose the fact that there is an album at all is a miracle in itself. As a review on Blabbermouth pointed out (they gave it 9.5 out of 10) it continues their examination of life after death. The previous three records were Dance Of Death, A Matter Of Life & Death and The Final Frontier. The Book Of Souls cover art is a painting of mascot Eddie in some kind of Mayan war paint, a culture that was known for “being big on the maintenance of souls for the afterlife.”
With a group as long in the tooth as Maiden, it’s fair to compare new music against their catalogue and, overall, I’d say Souls marches closest to Brave New World, the album where Dickinson returned to the band after quite an absence and a semi-successful solo career, though perhaps a more relaxed or at ease version of that. Classical flourishes and synth lines- particularly in the opening track If Eternity Should Fall- make some of these songs daringly epic, even by Maiden standards. Not unlike Motorhead ( I bought my first album by each band on the same day in 1980) Iron Maiden have exchanged the hell bent for leather approach of their earlier days for a more melodic and dramatic approach, although certainly much more sophisticated than Lemmy & Co.
A double album, especially one made primarily of lengthy songs, is difficult to pull off well, but Maiden have struck the right balance between drama and musicality. And while the band claims this is not a concept album, it certainly feels and functions like one. Overall it’s a mid-tempo set which may put off fans of their faster stuff, and of Steve Harris’s typical galloping bass lines, but the payoff is worth it. My favourite Maiden outing has always been Piece of Mind, yet I have found much to enjoy on the new album- I suppose nearly two hours of galloping aggression would have been too much to take.
Maiden seem to get more philosophical each time out, and that suits them well. Some of the musical ‘groove’ passages in these 11 songs seem overly long, but I confess a grudging respect for the band’s “Let’s keep playing and see where this leads” attitude. The track that best sums up The Book Of Souls is the epic closer Empire of The Clouds, shifting through many tempos and moods in its 18-plus minutes. Not only is this set the most ambitious recording they’ve ever undertaken, The Book Of Souls may very well prove to be the best thing they’ve ever done.
ESSENTIALS: If Eternity Should Fall, Tears Of A Clown, Empire of The Clouds
CICADA BALL The Boxcar Boys (Last Tango) ***
This is certainly one of the most whimsical records I’ve heard in quite a while. Billed as “vintage jazz, humor, Klezmer blues, hillbilly vocals, circus music you can surely dance to”, Cicada Ball, the group’s 3rd album, is sure to put a smile on your face and a spring in your step.
This isn’t bluegrass but it comes from a nearby neighbourhood. As I listened for the first time, different scenes from O Brother Where Art Thou kept flashing through my head. So Cicada Ball is sort of like Depression-era American street jazz, quite lively and sprightly, with clarinet being the primary lead instrument. This Toronto-based six piece is comprised of clarinetist John Williams, clarinetist Laura C. Bates, trombonist Karl Silveira, accordionist Kelsey NcNulty, sousaphonist Rob Teehan and washboard player Justin Ruppel, along with some select friends to help bring their vision to fruition.
As lively and enchanting as Cicada Ball is, I imagine the appeal for this particular brand of music nostalgia is narrow. Performances by all involved are tight and spirited with a joie de vivre that is difficult to find in other kinds of music, but is that enough for this album to really get over? Time will tell. Within the narrow framework they’ve built for themselves, The Boxcar Boys plough many furrows- from the joyful romp of Wally On The Run to the sombre Hymn For George. The song Baby Don’t Tear My Clothes is familiar to me too, though very different here from the sultry version I ran across years ago on Louise Hoffsten’s Knakebrod Blues.
At the end of the day, Cicada Ball is an upbeat and fun listen, sort of a New Orleans meets Cold Mountain kind of vibe, and it sounds like The Boxcar Boys had a great time putting this album together. Fine musicians having a good time around the mic- it’s really no more complicated than that, and it doesn’t have to be either.
ESSENTIALS: Shakin’ Off The Cobwebs, Old Fashioned Love, Hymn For George
CO2 Stahlmann (AFM) ***
The fifth outing for this German outfit- after their debut E.P. Herzschlag, self-titled debut and its follow up Quecksilber then Adamant. A mixture of keyboard textures, buzz saw guitars and relentless, grinding percussion, this kind of aggression will definitely get your ya-ya’s out.
Upon first playing this album (I’d never even heard of the band before) I thought what I’m sure many others have felt in this position; “Jeez, sounds a lot like Rammstein” and indeed they do. All but one of the song titles is in German and all of the vocals are so I have no idea what they’re on about. The music is powerful- relentless, really- quite melodic, and in its own Teutonic way, rather catchy. A song like Spiegelbild is slower, more dramatic and almost epic in feel- wouldn’t mind knowing what they’re singing about.
One could almost call this metal, and there are certainly elements of it, but the music on CO2 feels kind of danceable too as elements of electronica and even dubstep make this feel like it would play well in clubs, especially after midnight. Overall there’s an aggressiveness to this disc that I really enjoy for reasons I can’t explain, no doubt the same as many of us feel about much of what Rammstein has done over the years, particularly on the soundtrack to Vin Diesel’s XXX film.
I really can’t explain or analyze Stahlmann’s CO2 any further than that- the music on this album is physical, guttural, and will quite likely lead to your dashboard taking a severe beating. Feels good, sounds good- that’s all we need to know.
ESSENTIALS: Plasma, Spiegelbild, Feindflug
CHAOTIC NEUTRAL Matthew Good (Warner) ****
After writing an entire album then just chucking it out, Matthew Good comes back with his seventh solo record- and it’s a thing of exquisite beauty. This from a guy with 20 Juno nominations and 4 wins throughout his career- I like this album.
“Music is measured in miles” Good says. “In the way the air feels, eyes closed, just before a thunderstorm hits. In how your heart races with excitement in anticipation for something or someone. In smiles, tears, solemnity, and even silence” he continues. “Its choreography is found in the ordinary actions of everyday life. Dance sequences unrehearsed. Pyrotechnics as different and unique and singular as there are people on the planet.” I’m am keenly interested in what a man who thinks like this has to say.
Matthew Good’s struggles with mental health issues and hospitalizations are well documented and do not need to be recounted here. What all of that says to me, though, is that this is a soul who’s not afraid to open a few dark doors to see what’s behind them. The result is a collection of songs with a beat that are, spiritually speaking, far above the pop confections of others that are also vying for our attention. Sure I enjoy a catchy melody and a solid beat like anybody else, but if you can match that with a riveting story or a deep revelation, then you have my undivided attention.
At its very basic, Chaotic Neutral is a great sounding record. For a change, Good just handed over the reigns to long-time producer Warne Livesey, and he brought in a number of guests (like Holly McNarland) to help out too. “The process for this one was great” notes Matt. “I got to say ‘I’m just going to be an artist on this thing’, which I found massively liberating.” So many different sounds, from the melancholy Tiger By The Tail to harder driving songs like No Liars (which would sound at home on any road compilation) on this record that no matter what frame of mind you’re in, it’s inevitable that song will come up sooner or later that will have you thinking “Yep, that’s how I feel right now.”
Like most Matthew Good albums, there’s nothing really light about these songs. “I think I hit the nail on the head with Cold Water” he says. “(It’s) a cool Van Morrison soundscape. It tells the story of a sailor in a rowboat off the coast of Plymouth. His wife thinks he’s dead but when he is ultimately rescued and returns home, she’s gone. I think it might be the best song on the record.” It also sounds very much like an R.E.M. track- at least to me.
There is no real shortcut to enjoying Chaotic Neutral. You can dance around it a bit, maybe pull a track here or there and check it out, but as with anything Matthew Good does, sooner or later you’re going to have to block out a chunk of time, close the door to your music room, grab a huge mug of tea (or something stiffer), start at the top and follow his narrative from beginning to end. This isn’t background music, it’s a collection of songs with something to say that is worth paying attention to.
ESSENTIALS: No Liars, Cold Water, Army Of Lions
FUTURE NOSTALGIA The Sheepdogs (Warner) *** ½
When things become instantly huge, an instant big deal, I run the other way- always have. And so it was with The Sheepdogs when they first came to international attention with the Rolling Stone unsigned band covers contest, it was impossible for me to hear the music through the hype. I was surprised to see a new Sheepdogs record (out Oct.2nd) when I opened my Yangaroo delivery service this morning, and was unexpectedly delighted by how much I enjoyed what I heard.
Future Nostalgia comes across as a mix between The Allman Bros., The Doors, The Band and maybe Lighthouse, sounds like a record that could’ve come out in my teens as opposed to a CD that won’t be released for another 2 or 3 weeks. Perhaps what’s most likeable about this disc is the chill vibe- it’s the kind of album you throw on when you don’t feel like getting up to anything too hairy, like a friend that drops in unexpectedly just to see how you’re doing.
A lot of people have been listening to The Sheepdogs these last few years, with their major label debut opening at #1 and going home with four Juno awards out of seven nominations- not bad for a band that’s only been around for 9 years. Aside from being sceptical of the hype surrounding the group when they ‘burst on the scene’ in 2010, I also had to wonder if they would survive it, get past being “flavour of the month” and get to point where they can make the records that are in their hearts and have people listen to them. With Future Nostalgia I get a sense of the klieg lights being switched off and the group being left to their own devices, musically speaking. This disc feels like it has a ‘the pressure is kind of off, and this is who we really are’ feel to it, at least to me it does. Hipster D-bags and scenesters have moved on by now, and those that are in it for the music are paying attention.
The Sheepdogs are Ewan Currie (vocals, guitar), Ryan Gullen (bass/ vocals), Sam Corbett (drums/ vocals), Shamus Currie (keys/ horns), and Rusty Matyas (guitar/ vocals) and together they create music that invokes the free-spirited times of the late 60’s and early 70’s- that must be what’s speaking to the sleeping hippy deep inside my damaged heart. Downtown is the first single, and the closing 6 tracks weave together as a tasty medley that cools you down and eases you out of the album alive.
I’ve never been the trendy sort, that’s why you almost never see me write about current pop music. Since my first column in 1990 my unstated mission has been to write about music that inspires and moves me in some way- I was once turned down for a writing job in Nelson, BC because my stuff wasn’t “negative enough”. With Future Nostalgia The Sheepdogs have the strength to move past the hype that surrounded their introduction to the world and they’re settling into a nice groove. This album is so worth checking out when it comes out Oct.2nd.
ESSENTIALS: Downtown, Nothing All The Time, Bad Lieutenant
MOON TURN RED Monkeyjunk (Stony Plain) *****
Oh BABY! This Ottawa-based trio’s fourth long player is a scorching selection of rockin’ blues tunes ready to take on the world. If you’re into stuff like David Wilcox, Big Sugar, JJ Grey & Mofro and Black Keys, Monkeyjunk is singing your songs and I can guarantee that this is the way you want to hear ‘em!
“With each record we make, we feel we’re pushing more boundaries” says singer/ baritone guitarist/ harmonica and organ player Steve Marriner. “We explored grooves we’ve never hit on before, and experimented with new sounds.” That much is evident as they kick the door open with Light it Up, a party anthem if there ever was one. It is this continued forward motion that makes each Monkeyjunk release even better than the last, and the biggest reason Moon Turn Red the best one of all- so far.
Some really cool grooves over the course of these 10 songs, from the reggae vibe of Love Attack to the aforementioned Light It Up and Hot, Hot Papa (a Wilcox original, David plays guitar and sings on this one), to soulful love songs in Learn How To Love and Meet Me At Midnight that will really put some lead in your pencil. The diversity of grooves and vibes had me thinking of Big Sugar primarily, so it was not a huge surprise to learn from the press kit that Gordie Johnson is buddies with lead guitarist Tony D. “Gordie and I both come out of the blues- we’ve known each other for over 25 years” says Tony. “It was serendipitous that he happened to be touring in the vicinity (when we were recording). After all these years, we finally got a chance to work together!”
Moon Turn Red is grimy in all the right places, a collection of songs that make you want to move- either get up on the dance floor, or just jump in the car and go. It’s an outstanding addition to an already impressive body of work, and an example of musical camaraderie. Their passion, conviction and dedication to their music makes itself known in every lick, beat, lyric and solo. Great song writing and intuitive musicianship make this one hell of an album, on of the greats of 2015 in any genre.
ESSENTIALS: Light It Up, Love Attack, Learn How To Love
BLUES THUNDER Brad Wilson (Cali Bee Music) *** +
Wilson is a blues/ rock guitarist from California, following up his successful Hands On The Wheel album (featuring the hit The Ballad of John Lee) with Blues Thunder, a disc that rocks and rolls, but sometimes struggles to live up to its name.
It seems that to survive in the blues world today you gotta be able to rock out too, and that is something the Brad Wilson Band does with ease. Wilson is a soulful vocalist and a pretty smokin’ guitarist, and the band aren’t slouches either; Brian Beal on bass, Amerik Sandhu on drums Kirk Nelson on keys and Tumbleweed Mooney on harmonica. Songs like My Faith Has Been Broken certainly has that blues vibe, but it’s an attractive mid-tempo pop tune too. Though the blues are all over this disc, I can hear many of these songs existing outside of that rigid framework as well.
You may have already heard some of Brad’s music without realizing it; it’s been featured in soap operas on NBC and CBS, while Regis & Kelly were known to use it too, and filmmaker John Carpenter added it to his films Vampires and Ghosts Of Mars. Roots Music Report gave his last album a 5 out of 5 rating, and the aforementioned The Ballad Of John Lee made it into daily rotation on BB King’s Bluesville, my favourite channel on Sirius XM.
Blues Thunder is my first encounter with Brad Wilson’s music, but it’s not the balls out blues experience the title led me to believe it would be, along the lines of perhaps Stevie Ray Vaughan. Don’t get me wrong, I’m enjoying this a great deal, but if any other song on this disc might’ve been a better title track, I’d suggest Blue Shadows. There’s blues, there’s 80’s style pop and old time rock & roll here too, a very entertaining mixed bag of fun.
Ultimately Blues Thunder is pretty good company, the sort of album you want to throw on and get some stuff done- absolutely nothing wrong with that.
ESSENTIQLS: Sugar Sweet, Black Coffee At Sunrise, Let’s Go Barefootin’ It
OUTSKIRTS OF LOVE Shemekia Copeland (Alligator) *****+
Shemekia Copeland returns to Alligator Records with an album that kicks some serious ass. Outskirts of Love is like going to church and a speakeasy at the same time.
My first encounter with Ms. Copeland was when I saw her open for Buddy Guy in Edmonton in early 2006, and I’ve been a fan ever since. As singers go she’s robust and soulful, getting her songs (and those of others) across like she believes every word she is singing, which is certainly the case on Outskirts of Love. In Driving Out of Nashville she sings Country is just the blues with a twang so she believes some of the same things I do too- though I first heard it elsewhere, I’ve long maintained that country is the white man’s blues, And though that line has blurred over the years I still believe it to be true- and so does she.
Outskirts of Love is a volatile and effective mix of originals and covers that all sound like they could’ve come from Copeland herself. She does a great version of CCR’s Long As I Can See The Light, Billy Gibbons lends his guitar to an effective reading of the ZZ Top staple Jesus Just Left Chicago, and Shemekia covers her dad’s song Devil’s Hand In a way that I’m certain is making him smile from that great blues club beyond.
Outskirts Of Love is an uncanny combination of contemporary and traditional styles that will grab you by the lapels and refuse to let you go. USA Today praises this album by saying “Shemekia captures the timelessness of the blues while spinning it forward with remarkable maturity” and I wholeheartedly agree, along with NPR labelling her “fiercely expressive”. These songs and the way Shemekia interprets them have miles of depth, it’s almost as if she has no choice but to do this with her life- and that’s thrilling to witness. When she would do gigs with her father, the legendary Johnny Copeland, as a teenager, and his health began to fail him, she received the calling. “It was like a switch went off in my head” she recalls “and I wanted to sing. It became a want and a need- I had to do it.” And there are many of us that are glad she answered the call. If you want to hear true greatness, put on Outskirts Of Love right now and thank me later.
ESSENTIALS: Crossbone Beach, Devil’s Hand, Cardboard Box, Jesus Just Left Chicago