I don’t know anything about music. In my line you don’t have to.
— Elvis Presley.
My love affair with music is now in its fifth decade. Not just listening to tunes but thinking about, reading about, discussing and collecting music is a major part of who I am. As a music ‘consumer’ for so long it’s a new and somewhat scary notion that I could contribute to the experience and knowledge of others (music lovers or those simply bored enough to read this blog) through written reviews.
The intention of this blog is to connect you with music that has been meaningful to me in some way, resonated with my soul and increased my understanding of what it is to be human.
There is no rating system implied in the records I’ll select for review. In fact, some of the albums I love the most will not be represented here because either they’ve been reviewed so many times (Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors and the entire Beatles catalog) or I have nothing to add to the conversation around them as they’ve been reviewed by folks much smarter than me (this ain’t no Pitchfork). However, I reserve the right to break my own rules; it’s my party and I’ll act like a fool if I want.
You’ll find a fairly wide variety of musical genres included, from introspective singer/songwriter to straightforward pop/rock, from loud and obnoxious/anti-social metal all the way to classical and jazz.
As I write these entries, I’ll be thinking about a particular person I know that would benefit from listening to the record in review. It’ll remain my secret as to who that person is but, regardless, what I’d love for you to do is listen to these records in their entirety, end-to-end on whatever medium you prefer ( I guess Spotify, Amazon or Apple will be the most-used); engage with the music even if you hate it at first listen. I’ve missed (or delayed by years) many opportunities to discover a new favorite by dismissing music based on the genre or artist due to my own likes and dislikes. For example, I couldn’t even get through my first listen to Bjork’s “Debut” released in 1993. But something drew me back to the music and, after several spins (on CD) I started to appreciate her vision, aesthetic and artistry. I’ve listened to that record countless times and I now own and love all of Bjork’s albums.
This journey may meander and loop back on itself, I apologize in advance. By the end of it I truly hope that I might have influenced just ONE of you to change their mind or take a chance and experience a record, falling in love with it the way I have.
Comments are welcome! If my opinion irks you, keep it civil and I’ll do my best to respond.
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GvF’s sophomore album sounds more like themselves than anything that came before. Cranking up the opening track “Heat Above” rewards with Hammond drone and Deep-Purple-esque build to huge, bombastic (in a good way) chord progressions, clean guitar and Josh Kiszka’s distinctive vocals. Just ignore the initial industry criticism that there is too much Led Zep in the mix, this band is unique, creative and owes nothin’ to nobody.
Michigan never had it so good friends, and now they’ve gone and lost another great group to Nashville. For those of you music lovers that have had their heads in the sand during this pandemic year, Greta van Fleet burst onto the rock scene a few years back with intensity not seen in a decade, fueled by 70’s-tinged classic rock and a shrug for those too jaded or Pitchfork-enamored to recognize that rock music has always and will always pay homage to itself in it’s best form. To those cynics and doubters who claim to love music, I defy you to take a listen to “Age of Machine” or “The Barbarians” and find something to complain about. The band is tight, loud and consistent in their musical vision and execution. Josh’s voice doesn’t so much resemble Plant’s as combine a variety of influences into a soulful expression of heavy music in 2021. I hear Geddy Lee, Jon Anderson, David Byron and Freddy Mercury as his direct rock ancestors and no bad thing to be mentioned in the same paragraph as those guys!
“Stardust Chords” is a standout track for me, again combining Hammond B3 with clean guitar, crisp delivery and soaring vocals. “Light My Love” has a folk-rock feel with a central piano motif that repeats in the huge electric guitar melody. Slower paced and beautifully measured, any band, new or old, would be proud to be parents to this song.
Having listened to the vinyl record half a dozen times now I can confidently say that this album will be in constant rotation alongside the familiar and much loved music I’ve collected over the past 40+ years; Greta van Fleet is here to stay – suck it Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Variety and all of you industry hacks who wouldn’t know a good tune from a kick in the pants.
These four Swedish girls rock with a vengeance, modern Valkyries armed with guitar, bass, drums and microphones, channeling all the rock gods of old (Hendrix, Zep, Sabbath take a bow). Proving that heavy ain’t only for the boys, Maidavale stuff 70’s psych-rock sensibility into every chord change and solo, delighting this old headbanger with each new riff.
Starting out hot, the album opener “(If You Want the Smoke) Be the Fire” features Sofia Ström (guitar) delivering Jimi-style licks and is as tight a rock song as you’d ever want. At the midway point she throws down a prolonged riff solo that isn’t flashy but so right, so mindful and connected it’s as if she grew up on stage with those bygone greats.
Another stand-out track is “Standby Swing” with it’s Sabbathesque bass groove and great whoo-hoo backing vocals. More excellent axe work and sounding like they’ve been playing together forever, Maidavale are the real deal. “Find What you Love and Let It Kill You” ends the vinyl album (there is an additional instrumental track on Spotify/streaming called “Heaven and Earth”) and spotlights more outstanding soloing from Sofia with the rest of the band right there providing a solid percussive foundation and soaring vocals – big energy, big sound, big payoff.
Brothers Pablo and Luka van de Poel and friend Robin Piso have been prolific purveyors of their own special brand of not-quite-blues over the past 14 years. DeWolff shimmy and slide across the edge of dance, rock and blues with effortless conviction. Nothing sounds forced or unnatural, even when they’re throwing back to the summer days of ’78 (“It Ain’t Easy“) or laying down post-blues funk (“Nothing’s Changing“); this set of somewhat short songs provides a glimpse of what life on the road would be like with these guys – fun, frenetic and funky.
“Love is Such a Waste” clocks in as the longest track at 3:30 and hints at more than one Black Keys’ listening session but maintains the groove that DeWolff has established as their own. “Life in a Fish Tank” sets up another sliding dance beat but adds harmonica and Hammond to great effect. All ’round fun!
Like the songs, this review is short but, hopefully, sweet. Turn it up, loosen up and enjoy!
I’m back from a short(ish) hiatus to focus on discovering new music, listening to said music and catching up on the excellent rock, blues, country and metal releases of the past 3-5 years. I’ll be highlighting some of my favorite offerings in the forthcoming months, so I hope you enjoy these as much as I do! Kicking off with ‘Tascam Tapes’ from the Dutch trio Dewolff.
Beverage of Choice: Bud Lite in a 24 ounce plastic cup
It’s my opinion and assessment that all music is best experienced as a live performance, whether by the original artist or a cover band or just some kids playing in the garage. The immediacy, dynamic range, power and emotional resonance of music is usually diluted once it’s captured to a tape or disc of some kind. So it’s really difficult (and I have some experience here, having worked for radio stations and church as a sound engineer) to set up and accurately lay down the sounds coming from a variety of instruments and vocalists in real-time. You generally get one shot at it if you’re wanting to record a particular show and ‘fixing it in the mix’ means introducing additional and therefore artificial elements to the music.
These constraints inevitably mean that that there are not many great live albums; either the production values detract from the music and performances can sound flat, distant and uninteresting (unless you’re a total raving fan of that particular artist and then, of course, nothing sounds bad) or the performances are lacking merit. When a live album is good though, it’s amazing, and can transport the listener right into the mix and you become part of the crowd, connected and excited to be there.
These are the albums I reach for to get that ‘live fix’; generally on vinyl for the additional ambience but I have worn out many of these through constant play! Again, no particular order or ranking implied as each of these albums means something more than just the music to me. Some may even be ‘rated’ as below average by the experts and critics; music is so subjective to time, place, mood and preference that every listener gets to decide what they think is ‘good’ – so agree or disagree, all points of view are valid.
Alice Cooper – The Alice Cooper Show (1977) – Alice Cooper’s live performances in the 70’s are legendary for excess, drama, schlock horror and his idiosyncratic style (way, way ahead of his time). One thing Mr. Vincent Furnier knows for sure is how to pick musicians for his band. Steve Hunter blows the ceiling off the Aladdin hotel on guitar (“Is it My Body”) and the rest of the band rocks hard. It helped to have Bob Ezrin produce the album so that, even though the dynamic range is somewhat flat, the stereo imaging and clarity are excellent. Crank it up on headphones!
Humble Pie – Performance, Rockin’ the Fillmore (1971) – Despite being, essentially, a covers album, the way Humble Pie played other artist’s material really made it their own. Steve Marriott and Peter Frampton play off each other in a way that represents the underlying tensions in the band that would lead to Frampton heading off on his own and recording another well known if somewhat overplayed live album a few years later (“Comes Alive”). Great boogie and guitar jams on this one – check out “Stone Cold Fever”.
Rainbow – On Stage (1977) – I’ve already written an in-depth review of this, one of my favorite albums ever – you can read it here.
Deep Purple – Made in Japan (1972) – Instantly familiar to a generation of old rockers like me, this album represents the ‘best’ lineup Deep Purple ever had and, of course, substitute Ronnie James Dio for Ian Gillan and you pretty much have Rainbow a few years down the track. Incredible talent, great engineering from the legendary Martin Birch (who single-handedly created the British heavy rock sound) and music that has stood the test of time, what’s not to love?
Thin Lizzy – Live and Dangerous (1978)- The twin guitar attack of Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson are highlighted on this phenomenal album. Sadly this was Robertson’s last recording with the group and he was sorely missed on later efforts. An example of a live album ‘touched up’ in the studio (although exactly what Tony Visconti did to enhance the recordings is a mystery), the dynamic range and power of the music is amazingly well-rendered. Includes the best version of one of my favorite songs from the 70s , “Dancing in the Moonlight”, with a saxophone show-stopper from John Earle. RIP Phil Lynott, we miss you!
UFO – Strangers in the Night – (1978) – I recently purchased a new remastered vinyl copy as my original was worn out from over 40 years of play. A sorely underrated band and album; UFO is up there with the best hard rock bands of all time and what a year this was with the release of this album AND “Live and Dangerous” AND “Double Live Gonzo!” Sadly this was Michael Schenker’s last ‘classic’ recording with the great lineup of Phil Mogg, Paul Raymond, Pete Way and Andy Parker. The band would never sound this tight and heavy again. “Doctor Doctor”, “Lights Out” and “Too Hot to Handle” blow the roof off.
Led Zeppelin – The Song Remains the Same (1976) – I’ve seen critics dismiss this album as ‘disappointing’, ‘stodgy’, ‘overblown’ and even ‘boring’. Only to prove a point that critics can blow it sometimes; this is the music that, at 13 years old, expanded my mind, opened my ears and connected my soul to what I will always hold up as the gold standard for rock and roll. Sure, the 10+ minute drum solo on “Moby Dick” doesn’t need repeated playing and Jimmy plays thousands of notes more than he probably needs to – that’s not the point here. This is an historical document for the mid-70s – nobody then or since does it better. If you’ve ever seen the movie (this is really a soundtrack album) you’ll know what I mean and, if you haven’t, drop whatever you are doing, go directly to whatever streaming app you can find it playing on and watch it now!
Kiss – Alive! (1975) – “You wanted the best and you got it!” My best mate growing up, John, moved from England to South Africa and into my 4th grade classroom bearing this album and turned me on to what would be a lifetime love of monster plod music. I finally got to see Kiss live in Toronto in 2019 and, surprisingly, the band and music hadn’t aged a day since this, the first great live album I ever heard was released. If you think Kiss was/is a joke, go listen to this album and the level of passion, professionalism and sheer good times the band puts into a show – it’s always been about the fans (rise Kiss army!)
Ted Nugent – Double Live Gonzo (1978) – Another critically underrated artist (who never helped himself with outrageously dumb public interviews) this is another example of how vibrant the rock music scene was in the 70’s. Sadly, living in South Africa, I missed all of it but made up some ground when I moved to the USA in 1997, at least with the bands and artists that were still around at that point! Nugent is an amazing guitarist with his own unique stranglehold on the Gibson Byrdland that he played on this album; the band is super tight and no after-the-fact studio enhancements on this one – all live, all good and larger than life. Dig into “Hibernation” or “Stranglehold” for an understanding of Nugent’s particular brand of electric guitar wizardry.
Queen – Live Killers (1979) – All the hits represented here. Freddie was the ultimate front-man and there are multiple examples of the amount of sheer fun he brought to a show on this album. The production isn’t great , being slightly flat in the mix, but the band’s incredible cohesiveness and feeling for the music is on display throughout making this an excellent document for the halcyon days of classic rock music.
Worthy Mentions – Peter Frampton – Frampton Comes Alive (1976); Wings – Wings Over America (1976); Genesis – Seconds Out (1977); Kiss – Kiss Alive II (1977)
Six years after the worldwide phenomenon that was So, Peter Gabriel released this absolute gem of a breakup album. Dealing with the emotional and spiritual pain of his divorce and other strained relationships, the record mirrors the sonic layering and rhythms of So but, in my option, surpasses the impact of that offering through exquisite song-writing and craftsmanship in the studio. In addition to Gabriel’s typically nuanced and percussion-driven sound, the choice of collaborators on the album is inspired: Sinéad O’Connor takes the role that Kate Bush played on “Don’t Give Up” (one of my favorite songs from Gabriel) and delivers a heartfelt and affecting performance on “Blood of Eden” as well as “Come Talk to Me“, the opening track. The plaintive poetry of the latter song never fails to provoke an emotional response in me that hovers between sadness and hope :
The track has a nuanced sonic landscape, utilizing a variety of instrumentation (synth, synth bass, bagpipes, drone, guitar, triangle and amazing percussion by Manu Katché). Another welcome collaborator is Daniel Lanois lending his amazing talent to various tracks and instruments (dobro, shaker, horns) on the album.
Long-time friend and colleague Brian Eno adds his inimitable keyboard skills to “Love to be Loved“, one of Gabriel’s most emotionally transparent and appealing songs. After the gloss and mainstream acceptance of So, it must have been taking a major risk for Gabriel to expose himself in this way; the subdued atmospherics and vocal delivery stir the heart and mind in ways that few pop songs could ever aspire to. In my opinion this track deserves to be an enduring reminder of Gabriel’s creativity and musicianship.
“Blood of Eden” explores the inner world of relationships (especially marriage) with an amazing vocal performance and a similar song structure to “Don’t Give Up”. Gabriel uses Biblical imagery and themes fairly often in his songwriting and this particular example is powerful and affecting.
“Steam” is somewhat of an anomaly on this album with a strong resemblance (pretty much a rewrite) to “Sledgehammer”, the huge hit from So that launched Gabriel from a boutique fringe audience into the mainstream. Not a bad song, just somewhat out of place on this otherwise delicate and ephemeral track list. “Only Us” returns to the exotic and surreal soundscape that Gabriel excels at creating – Tony Levin providing a great lead bass performance and with Ayub Ogada on backup vocals, with additional musical punctuation from ney flute and violin.
Now we get to my favorite track on the album and possibly my favorite Gabriel track of all time – “Washing of the Water“. Measured and stately drums with piano lead and horns arrangement. Gabriel’s vocals are raw, infiltered and direct-to-the heart amazing. Listen to the lift on the bridge, his voice soaring and cracking with emotion, powerful and yet delicate; if I could sing at all I’d choose to sing like this.
“Digging in the Dirt” is up-tempo to match the somewhat aggressive lyrics; almost like a disagreement that turns into a fight between a married couple. Gabriel was clearly working out some the frustrations, disappointments and resentments from his failed marriage on this album – sad for him but great for us as music lovers as he turned his emotions into creativity and gifted us this great music. “Fourteen Black Paintings” is another great collaborative effort with John Paul Jones (ex-Led Zep) playing bass, keyboards and surdo, Babacar Faye on djembe, Levon Minassian on duduk and Daniel Lanois on dobro. This musical approach (percussion-driven with deep and wide soundscape layered over) has been Gabriel’s strength and recognizable trademark for a long time now and it’s what I’ve learned to appreciate most about his talent.
“Kiss that Frog” could have been left off this album and nobody would have missed it (well, maybe Gabriel might); it’s the weakest offering on the album, gimmicky at best – skip it if you like. “Secret World” restores the mood and rescues the end of the album with another ode to relationships wrapped up in a musical blanket incorporating synth strings, Mexican flute and cello and Manu Katche’s stellar drumming.
Warning: this album is not as immediately accessible as So and it takes time and multiple listenings to extract all of the juicy goodness from Us. If you do invest he time though, I guarantee you a rich return from the effort and you’ll be able to amaze your friends when you next identify a duduk been played on a song!
By no means a comprehensive list, here are fifteen of the greatest albums by female artists in my library. Again, the order of entry does not imply a ranking, these are all albums I consider to be worthwhile, extraordinary and musically engaging; simply enjoy them!
Beverage of Choice: Grey Goose Martini, straight up, two olives
Chances are you’ve never heard of this band or their cross-genre, compelling and satisfying music. Based in Amsterdam, My Baby combine elements of rock, blues, dance, gospel, folk and world music into a witch’s brew of entrancing rhythm and melody. Shamanaid is their sophomore album and expands the tone and musicality found on the debut Loves Voodoo with the use of slide guitar, lap steel, dobro and that undefinable element of ambience/feeling that defines great music.
Kicking off with a dance/EDM oriented tune, “Seeing Red“, your introduction to the band may make you scratch your head and ask ‘what the heck does he hear in this stuff that’s so wonderful?’ Just hang in there buddy, this music will creep up on you and, next thing you know, your toes will be tapping, body swaying and you’ll find yourself hooked on the catchiness, craft and concentrated strangeness this group manages to effortlessly create.
“Meet Me at the Wishing Well” showcases a loping beat with lap steel and Cato van Dijck’s laid-back voice simultaneously soothing and exciting the ears. Backing vocals from brother Joost provide depth and nuance while guitarist Daniel Johnston interjects with delicious little runs and fills. Nice! “Uprising” focuses on that steel guitar sound with elements of blues, gospel and dance again all mixed up, shaken, stirred together and served up steamy and sweet. “The Doors of Your Mind” sounds like a 70’s throwback but has a modern mix and temperament; listen to this one through a good set of headphones to appreciate all the elements combined here (shaker, wide open mix, guitar interplay left and right; echo percussion and layers of ambience. )
OK, by now you either love it or hate it I guess. If the latter, go ahead and check out back to your comfort zone (anywhere from Demis Roussos to Lamb of God). The discerning rest of you, keep going and explore the excellence represented on the rest of the album with songs like “Mary Morgan“, “Hidden from Time“, “Marching” and “Panggajo” demonstrating the tremendous breadth of sound and expression the band has to offer.
By all accounts My Baby has a fantastic live show and a dedicated core fan group that will travel far to see them in concert. Hopefully they will get ‘big’ enough to make it over to the USA at some point – I will be there front and center to cheer them on!
I’ve always been a sucker for layered, nuanced and clear album mixes regardless of musical genre and, in this case, the arrangements and production of traditional and new folk songs is a stellar example. On the first bar of “The Littlest Birds” the attention to detail and pains taken to elevate the somewhat simple music to a great experience is evident.
Hailing from Vancouver, The Be Good Tanyas have a small but expressive catalog, carving out a niche in the generally cluttered and undifferentiated genre. It’s not easy breathing new life into old tunes and it’s even more difficult to come up with something distinctively new but they succeed on both counts admirably. The music is deftly presented with a minimum of fuss or sonic trickery with small touches here and there (a breathy line, electric guitar behind the mix, banjo counterpoint) and, especially for a debut album, the group display a control and surety of vision that belies their experience.
Listen to the intermingled harmonies on a song like “Broken Telephone” with a bright mandolin playing the role of a third voice and then electric guitar solo and you’ll be left wondering and marveling at how uplifting and joyous the song is even with a rather maudlin lyrical content. These thematic elements (counterpoint, harmony and clear, bright production pervade the album, making it an absolute listening pleasure from beginning to end – slap on a pair of good headphones for an optimal experience.
Beverage of Choice: Knob Creek Rye and Fresh Apple Cider
Between 1994 and 2003, the year he died, The Man in Black enjoyed a late career surge in popularity and creative output due to producer Rick Rubin’s vision, care, and industry smarts, releasing four albums combining Cash’s unmistakable style with contemporary artist’s songwriting. The positive trend continued posthumously between 2004 and 2010 with the release of two additional albums; American V: A Hundred Highways, becoming Cash’s first number one album in 37 years. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Johnny was all washed up but, by 1994 he had certainly mined out the country/folk/traditional vein he had so long been associated with and these (mostly) covers revitalized his prolific talent for storytelling and musical purity. After all, Mr. Cash was 60 when he recorded the first of this set and died at age 71 shortly after the released of the fourth (and, in my opinion, best) album.
The song selections are eclectic but, true to form, Johnny made them his own. Not all of the covers are a spectacular success (“Danny Boy”) but, in general, the level of engagement and musical interpretation is excellent; some standouts to explore are “Thirteen” (Glenn Danzig), “Rusty Cage” (Chris Cornell), “I Won’t Back Down” (Tom Petty, “One” (U2), “The Mercy Seat” (Nick Cage), “Hurt” (Trent Reznor) and “Personal Jesus” (Martin Gore – Depeche Mode). The original, Cash-created, tunes featured on the albums are some of his finest writing in decades (“Like the 309”, “I’m Leaving Now”) and mostly deal with the fact of his imminent departure from this old globe with candor, humor and grace.
Cash also had some great assistance in creating this body of music from artists like Tom Petty, Flea, Lindsey Buckingham, Sheryl Crow, Merle Haggard and Nick Cave. It seems that everyone owes some kind of musical debt to the great man and many were honored and overjoyed to get a chance to work with him even as his days ran out (maybe especially so).
We’ve been left a great legacy of honest, uncompromising and soul-satisfying music by a man whose personal demons drove him to the brink of ruin but whose ultimate faith in God and man is a testament to the resilience of the human heart. Explore all of these albums without necessarily taking them in chronological order, each is rewarding and compelling on it’s own merits. Approached as a holistic body of work the American Recordings are a fitting tribute to a true American musical hero.