Not Far From Joy

  • Artist: Black Dub
  • Title: Black Dub
  • Released: 2010
  • Format: CD
  • Genre: Rock/Soul/Dub-Reggae
  • Beverage of Choice: Cabernario No.8 – Maipo Valley

At this point, if you’ve read a few of my posts, you may already be sick and tired of hearing about my devotion to Daniel Lanois’ particular genius and production style. If that’s true for you, quit reading, take a break and go listen to some K-Pop because this is all about the ‘Lanois magic’ again. Actually, not so much. He did form this group as a vehicle for some of his compositions and to get out on the road with a real band instead of as solo artist but, in Trixie Whitley, he found an ingenue and force of nature that makes this debut and, so far, solitary Black Dub album come to life.

I had the great fortune and pleasure of seeing the group at Anaheim House of Blues on their tour in 2011 (for a $10 entrance fee!!) and spent the night right up front, entranced at the way Trixie, at 20-something performed like a veteran, her voice soaring over the band, effortlessly dominating the venue. Lanois was his usual laid-back, laconic self on keyboards, a little guitar, harmonizing here and there and generally enjoying himself but letting the band lead the way and clearly reveling in helping a new star come into her own.

The music is not actually completely typical of Lanois, although he wrote all the songs but two (“Last Time” and “Ring the Alarm“). A mixed bag of reggae beats (“I Believe in You“), straight up rock with Lanois trademark production values (“Love Lives“), soulful ballads (“Surely“) and trip-hop/jazz (“Slow Baby“), the album can take a while to adjust to; hang in there because it’s really worthwhile. It took me a few spins to fall deeply in love with the sheer creativity and musicianship ,enjoying the satisfaction of deciphering someone else’s headspace and making it my own.

Back to Trixie; listening to her rich contralto vocals on showpiece songs “I Believe in You” and “Surely” will give you an inkling of just how powerful her delivery is in a live setting. Check out her discography if you get a chance, very different music to Black Dub but nonetheless interesting and diverse, sometimes sounding like Neneh Cherry, sometimes like PJ Harvey and most often just like her ownself (which is a good thing).

The instrumental tracks (“Slow Baby” and “Sirens“) are very typically Lanois’ style, the major difference between these recordings and his own being the excellent musicians with him – Daryl Johnson on bass and jazz session extraordinaire Brian Blade on drums. The interplay is subtle and extremely nuanced, delivering a balanced, involving and immersive musical experience. Listen to these tracks a couple of times, they are NOT filler!

The song the band wrote together, “Sing” is just sheer frivolity and a wonderful live sing-along opportunity. I remember it well from the show and how much fun the band was having together, supporting each other, goofing around and at the same time making every aspiring musician in the crowd jealous at how easy it seemed for them to make a joyful noise. As I’ve stated, you may need to hear this album a few times to truly appreciate the craftsmanship , energy and professionalism that makes it sound so easy to create something new and different. Maybe start with the song “Canaan“, the only Lanois-led vocal track , it’ll sound familiar and you probably won’t quite be able to put your finger on why. That’s his genius – you’ll be pulled in, surrounded and welcomed; relax and enjoy!

American Dreams

  • Artist: Justin Townes Earl
  • Title: The Saint of Lost Causes
  • Released: 2019
  • Format: Digital Download
  • Genre: Americana
  • Beverage of Choice: Stone Buenaveza Salt & Lime Lager

I’ve always felt it must be really difficult for the sons of exceptionally talented (or simply very famous) Dads to carve out their own path in life in the same area for which the father is well known. There are some kids in the music arena though that make it look really easy; witness Chris Stills, Jakob Dylan, Jeff Buckley, Sean Lennon, Jason Bonham and this standout artist, Justin Townes Earl.

This album is the latest in Earle’s short but sweet catalog of hybrid folk, blues and country records that delivers a particularly bitter-sweet punch in this time in US history. His father, Steve Earle, is of course almost as famous for his left-leaning political views as his prodigious American songwriting skills and Justin does follow along in that path, albeit with his own style, tone and dynamic. The music is almost laconic in pace and ambiance, with some of the vocals sounding as if he’s singing to himself, musing/riffing on a theme and we are listening from outside, trying to keep up with where he’s going. At other times, the story is personal and intimate, up close and crystal clear in meaning and melody.

I’ve been spinning this one for a few months now, probably having listened to it on aggregate about a dozen times and I find myself coming back to it again with a sense of discovery and delight, seeking to decipher the layers of dense storytelling and musicianship and claim them as part of my library; connecting the dots to society, musical heritage and other artists/songs that I know and love. The album doesn’t disappoint in any respect and I feel it’s going to become a favorite over time; I’ve already ordered the double album vinyl version and can’t wait to experience the music in the best format of all! I know this may be heretical for many of you born and raised in the digital age, but analog rules.

I leave it up to you to listen through the tracks and extract what you can, my advice is to make sure you carve out the time to listen to the album as a whole, focus on the dynamic between lyric and instrument, listen for delightful elements of piano, harmonica, pedal steel, acoustic guitar and Earle’s tenor vocals well-suited to the range and tone of his carefully-crafted stories. This is truly American music at it’s best; timeless yet timely, cross-cultural especially in his dissection of family relationships, work and dreams for the future. A sense of place and belonging is what we’re all looking for and The Saint of Lost Causes takes us there on the back of it’s shuffle, blues, country and folk-rock pickup truck headed West.

Postscript 8/23/20: we just learned of the untimely passing of JTE at the ridiculously under ripe age of 38. He made the world a better place with his music and will be sorely missed, at least by this fan – I just got an autographed vinyl copy of Lost Causes and it’s sad to think that this could be one of the last records he signed. I’ll treasure it and pass it down to the next generation, remembering to tell the story of how, for a short time, Justin Townes Earle shone brightly and shared his rich talent with us. I am grateful we have his recorded music as a legacy and he will not be forgotten.

Everything is Broken

  • Artist: Otis Taylor
  • Title: White African
  • Released: 2001
  • Format: CD
  • Genre: Blues
  • Beverage of Choice: Mango Margarita

Speaking directly to the issues of the past, Otis Taylor‘s music seems to be endlessly and despairingly relevant to our present. I was first made aware of his distinctive and dark blues brilliance through this album that remains on high rotation in my library due to it’s tone, authenticity and compelling directness.

White African describes in dark and vivid detail the reality of being poor and on the fringes in America. Without specifically calling out racial issues (except in the album title) the music and lyrics deliver a message with a much higher emotional and intellectual impact than someone yelling on TV. Taylor speaks for the dead, the generations past and present, and does so without pointing fingers or histrionics.

OK, I guess you’re going to listen to “3 Days and 3 Nights” and challenge me on the last statement; we can possibly at least agree that the track is highly effective in conveying a sense of helplessness and underlying fury. Every time I hear the song it’s heart-wrenching and sometimes, I must admit, I skip it if I’m feeling a little wrung out or frazzled by events of the day. Listen to this tone poem at least once and admire the performance and artistry of the man; after that, if it doesn’t work for you, I understand. Having just listened to it again for this review, my emotions are a little raw so please forgive any lack of professional distance in this post.

The music on this album is understated and mostly takes a back seat to the vocals and stories that Taylor tells but listen to the wonderful harmonica on “Round and Round“, eloquent acoustic and electric guitars on “Stick on You” and “Rain So Hard“, banjo on “Lost My Horse” and ethereal keys on “Saint Martha Blues” and you’ll quickly understand that the man is a musician of the highest order with a creative drive and focus that makes him stand out in the somewhat cluttered blues scene. With John Lee Hooker as a major influence, you can expect nothing but excellence across Taylor’s entire discography.

Also check out his most recent release , 2017’s Fantasizing About Being Black for an up-to-date take on race relations in America. Nothing speaks to the heart on any issue better than music, so I’m keeping this post short (and hopefully sweet) to free up more of your time to dig into Otis Taylor’s specific brand of genius.

Hitch Your Wagon

  • Artist: Gomez
  • Title: Bring It On
  • Released: 1998
  • Format: CD
  • Genre: Alternative/Roots-Rock
  • Beverage of Choice: Stone Tangerine Express Hazy IPA

Not to be confused with Selena Gomez, this is the bluesy roots-rock band from the UK that made my hair stand on end with the opening computer/tabla/guitar bars mix on the first track from their debut album under review here. Let’s call it a great first impression that was confirmed and cemented in place over time. My good friend and fellow music geek G.F. played me the opener “Get Miles” on a visit to England in 1998 and I was hooked; I’ve acquired all of Gomez’ music since then and remain as astonished by their virtuosity and range as at that first encounter.

Undeservedly relatively obscure in the USA, Gomez remain popular in their native country and deliver a great live show. This album actually beat out Massive Attack’s Mezzanine (previously reviewed) and The Verve’s Urban Hymns for the Mercury Music Prize in it’s release year, yet didn’t even chart in America. They have since (from around the mid-2000’s after Split the Difference was released) grown a fan-base here but I am yet to chat with any local acquaintance familiar with their music. Hopefully, this post will go a small way towards changing that sad state of affairs!

Kicking off “Get Miles“you get a slow burn from the instruments and then Ben Ottewall’s strange and yet familiar voice cuts into the head space with a bluesy timber and delivery. One of the band’s great strengths is having three accomplished vocalists on hand but Ottewall sounds like he grew up in a bourbon-and-smoke-pit-infused Southern state and, once you’ve heard him sing, you won’t mistake him for anyone else. The song grooves along and ups the intensity mid-track with harmonies, additional fuzz guitar riffs and tuba (tuba!) – I mentioned that this band was diverse right?

Jumping right into “Whippin’ Piccadilly” a simple acoustic riff sounds like an outtake from an Oasis session and then the band asserts themselves with percussion and synthesizer elements that are one of their signature sounds. The track has a loose feeling and 60’s vibe that’s in line with the hippy-ish sentiment in the lyrics.

Make No Sound” highlights Ottewall’s excellent voice again showing off range, depth and emotion. Very simple in construct it has a beautiful chorus with acoustic guitar and strings backing the soaring vocals. Great harmonies on the later choruses and cello add to the depth and add dimensional range to the tune. One of my favorites.

For a change in direction, I present “78 Stone Wobble” with a blues-influenced riff, psychedelic backing, vocal effects and obscure lyrics. With all the vocalists taking a turn on the mike the song is incredibly open and lush and yet intense and focused at the same time; weird Spanish sampled monologue, horns and the kitchen sink thrown in for good measure.

Tijuana Lady” provides a solid minute or so of sampled, scratchy Spanish-timbered guitar and computer-generated percussive sounds jumping from ear to ear in the headphones and then abruptly into a clear, open and precise acoustic guitar and beautifully psychedelic/spacey vocals. The chorus is double-tracked left and right on the stereo mix opening the song up even wider. This is a great example of the band’s creativity, skill and ability to mix up genres and sounds all in one song – strange but compelling and achingly beautiful in expression and execution.

We’re just halfway through the album and already been rendered ecstatic by the musicality, expertise, expressionism and focus of this great band. The rest is just more of the same consistently high-value blend of laid-back yet intense, loose yet structured and genre-confused versatility. Stick with it through to the final track and you’ll have experienced and hour or so of a wonderfully conceptualized and executed modern musical miracle – an album that, with no fanfare at all, upped the ante for all serious musicians that followed.

If you like late 60’s Beatles, The Who, The Doors or any psychedelic blues at all listen to “Rie’s Wagon” and I’m pretty sure you’ll become an instant Gomez fan. Also pay attention to Olly Peacock’s drumming as he is a multi-talented genius, programming the computers and synths in addition to all things percussion. And then check out the rest of their discography (‘How We Operate’ is a great example of how the band’s songwriting matured, focused and got even stronger over time) for good measure. You can thank me later.

Drink it All Down

  • Artist: The Black Keys
  • Title: Magic Potion
  • Released: 2006
  • Format: CD/Digital Download
  • Genre: Blues-Rock
  • Beverage of Choice: Irish Breakfast Tea

Listening to the stripped-down, raw and sometimes blistering riffs Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney produced from a just-better-than-home basement studio in Akron, Ohio, you’d be forgiven for assuming that they had a lot of help from the record company to get the sound so distinctly, well, perfect. The acoustics on this album are great simply because it is so raw and under-produced. The previous three albums are some of my favorite collections of low-fi blues-based rock music but Magic Potion stands out because, although The Black Keys recorded and mixed on what they considered to be ‘crappy’ equipment, all the nuance, dynamics and immediacy that make music exciting can be found on this offering.

It’s also the first album they created that are all original compositions (heavily borrowing from the classic blues greats, of course, with Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside chief among them) and the track listing just rolls along with effortless heaviness, syncopation and melody. Aurbach’s scorching guitar sound resolves neatly on every track while Carney’s drumming is simple, powerful and dynamic. I’ve seen The Black Keys in concert a handful of times, each time at a progressively larger venue and it was amazing the first time to see them in downtown LA in a club with an audience of around 500 in attendance; I was on the rail right in the center, could have reached out and touched them. Play Magic Potion loud on pretty much any system and you’ll get a sense of what seeing them in concert in the early 2000’s was like. The band themselves have gotten progressively ‘larger’, adding keyboards, multi-layers, tracked vocals etc. to their studio albums and have enjoyed great popularity since the release of their sixth album, Brothers.

Still, for me, Magic Potion hits the sweet spot between simply putting out good music and being a huge stadium band – it’s low-fi but not muddy, directly accessible but not unsophisticated and rocks hard on every track. The band are tight but leave space for the music to speak to the heart and mind; see if you can resist drumming along or nodding your head on “Your Touch“, “Modern Times” or “Give Your Heart Away“.

The album kicks off with a great big Zeppelinesque riff on “Just Got to Be” and your ears are dropped in the raging blues fire that marks this as arguably The B.K.’s finest hour (actually only around 43 minutes, it’s a shortish album). “Your Touch” kicks hard and was a best-selling single for them and showed up in the movie Zombieland. “You’re the One” slows down the pace, if not the intensity, and highlights Auerbach’s deft touch on guitar; not every song has to singe your eyebrows!

Just a Little Heat” attempts to do just that, with another Led Zep groove and guitar sound, over-driven to the point of torture, howling and shredding nerves and ears. The verse settles down and then the guitar kicks back up to underscore the changing dynamics as well as the paranoid lyrics. The short slide solo is satisfying as a counterpoint to the riff – just a great blues-driven rock song.

Give Your Heart Away“digs a groove into the vinyl a mile deep with Carney exploring more of his kit and laying down percussive landmines for Auerbach to explode. The riff is straightforward and powerful; again the duo leave so much space in the tempo the listening body can’t help but be drawn into he rhythm and start rocking out. “Strange Desire” is a slow burner with the distorted guitar and Dan’s voice in call and response worthy of inclusion on any ‘best of the blues’ collections; this track is more nuanced than the rest of the album and therefore possibly the most satisfying from a purely musical point of view.

“Modern Times” goes back to “massive riff” mode with Carney pounding the living daylights out of the kick and snare. The interplay between drums and guitar is superb on this track and the special ‘simpatico’ bond between the two musician’s is evident in spades. A quick reference to Zeppelin’s Custard Pie, which, in turn, references Shake Em on Down by Bukka White only accentuates the band’s legitimate grounding in the blues.

The Flame” is another smoldering down-tempo track that emphasizes Auerbach’s ability to show restraint as well as rip-your-head-off power. “Goodbye Babylon” is another nuanced track with unusually political lyrics and a deceptively easy-listening mid-temp chorus that belies the intensity and sheer musicality of the song. Listen to this one a couple of times and you will start understanding how the duo jell together in a way that is inexplicable and special.

Black Door” is another solid riff machine with Dan’s voice in a higher register in parts that are a foreshadowing of some of the later music on albums like Attack and Release and Brothers. The album closes with “Elevator” in pretty much the way it kicked off with guitar feedback and then a solid kick ‘n’ snare/blues riff with the band having as much fun as they possibly can in four minutes of basement-produced fuzz-box distortion.

Lo-fi never sounded so hi-fi as on this great album that is timeless in it’s creative prowess, musical sensibility, performance artistry and intensity of delivery. I’m going to see The Black Keys in concert again one day but maybe I’ll wait until they start playing small clubs again so that I can wax nostalgic over the days before they found huge fame and fortune and stuck to the basics of producing down ‘n’ dirty, satisfying and exciting rock albums.

A Trip to the Human Zoo

  • Artist: U2
  • Title: Achtung Baby
  • Released: 1991
  • Format: 180g Vinyl Remaster/CD
  • Genre: Pop/Rock
  • Beverage of Choice: Canada Dry Ginger Ale

U2‘s particular brand of pop/post-punk rock/blues rock/garage rock only impressed itself on my consciousness in late 1983 after the release of their third album, War. I’d been drafted into the South African military to begin my two years of mandatory ‘national service’ and, of course, taken a small library of metal and heavy rock cassette tapes with me in an attempt to hold onto my individuality and prove to the powers that be that they could rob me of my personal freedoms but would never capture my mind or soul. Hey, what can I tell you except that I was young and foolish and they, inevitably, ground me down to a point where I could be rebuilt with a vestige of self-respect, discipline and purpose (albeit their purpose, not mine).

During my time in boot-camp I was exposed to a variety of human life that I hadn’t known existed up to that point; naive farm boys, world-wise inner-city hoodlums, arrogant rich kids and everything in between (I was a nice suburban middle-class cliche) all of whom, I soon realized, had some traits that were admirable and to be emulated as well as rough edges that were nasty and to be avoided. All of us were white males between the ages of 17 and 24 with a mix of certainty and ignorance that comes with the demographic.

Grounded in 70’s hard rock, proven by 80’s metal and certainly exposed to punk, an Irish pop/folk band was just miles off my radar – until one my platoon buddies turned up “Sunday Bloody Sunday” on his portable cassette deck and a I realized I had been missing out on a more melodic and emotional version of the music I already loved. I was instantly hooked and managed to get the first three albums delivered to me by my long-suffering parents when they got a chance to visit their baby boy after 10 weeks of army indoctrination. Since then, I’ve purchased every U2 album on CD, vinyl or download (and sometimes all three, witness this album) as soon as they were made available and, to make a long story shorter, I regard Achtung Baby as the pinnacle of their amazing career.

Now, if you’re a huge fan and disagree with me ( some of my friends I still speak to think U2 sold out when they met Daniel Lanois and that War is the last ‘real’ U2 album), that’s OK. Just hear me out and then, if you’re still deluded we can agree… that you’re still deluded. Lanois’ production magic on The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree turned U2 into an international phenomenon and also made them immensely rich; I’m not saying they wouldn’t have been successful without him, I’m just observing that the sound we’ve come to associate with U2 (the booming echoey drum patterns, spacious guitar and ambient keys) were only there in embryonic form on Boy, October and War and, without Lanois (with a shout-out to Brian Eno for the more ambient elements), they would have been lost in the New Wave of music that was washing up on shores all around the world.

To me, Unforgettable and Joshua were warm-ups for Achtung, where the band became everything they could be and laid down an album that will, in my opinion, come to be regarded as the moment U2 stopped trying to be ‘important’ and ‘relevant’ and simply rocked. The previous album Rattle and Hum (which I regard as in their top 3, with either of the aforementioned Lanois-era albums in the lineup) showed movement towards this goal with songs like “Desire“, ” When Love Comes to Town“,” God Part II” and the live version of “Bullet the Blue Sky” being stand-out moments.

Finally we turn to the music on Achtung Baby and get drop-kicked into the distorted vocals, huge bass-line and tightened snare drum that, along with swirling ambient keyboards and the Edge’s inimitable/idiosyncratic/obsessive-compulsive guitar playing make up the elements of this offering. The addition of Steve Lilywhite to the production team also tightened things up a bit and gave the band more room for harder edges and sound on some tracks. With Lanois and Eno playing on various songs, the sound is also expanded and sophisticated beyond that which the four-piece band could muster on their own.

Zoo Station” eases us into the playlist with lots of overdubbed vocal layers and that huge drum sound dominating the song. Then into the sing-along delight of “Even Better Than the Real Thing” with massive hooks and now- familiar riffs making it one of the five or six songs on the album that dominated radio top-forty lists at the time.

One” has, in all fairness, been overplayed to the point of contempt on classic rock channels. But, for a reason – it’s simply one of the most affecting/effective pop songs ever written. The beautiful swell of strings mid-song always send chills up my spine (Brian Eno to blame) and Bono’s somewhat ragged vocal delivery is convincing in it’s authentic yearning for reconciliation and transparency. Go ahead and listen to it again; focus on the way the elements of the song blend together in complete harmony, with the chord progression evoking melancholy but also hope for a better tomorrow. Super-simple but orchestrated , produced and performed in a way that vaults it into a class all of its own.

Thematically, the album deals with love and loss, U2 all grown up and having the hearts broken by the world, realizing that all their ideals and dreams were just that and the ‘real world’ can be a cold and lonely place. “In my dream, I was drowning my sorrows But my sorrows they learned to swim” – Until the End of the World.

Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” dives deeper into the pool of relationships, hurt and unmet desires. “So Cruel” has the most amazing live drum sound and, cranking it up on my main stereo system, makes the whole room shake with kick and tight, tight snare. The track is piano-driven with a string arrangement that is also top-notch (more Eno with the Edge ably assisting) and Daniel Lanois’ unmistakable jagged/wavy bass/guitar production evens out the sweetness. Bono delivers a typically impassioned performance and his voice soars, effortlessly falsetto when he needs it to be, and fills the track with emotion – desperation and pain mingled with hopelessly love-struck yearning.

The Fly” rocks out from the start (you probably remember Bono wearing the dark glasses on videos for the track and on tour promoting the album). Great big guitar sound and solo in the middle highlights the Edge’s chops and makes one realize how much he contributes to the unique U2 sound; they’d be a totally different band without him. I believe they are one of those bands that will just stop if one of the members wants out or becomes unavailable in some other way. They are all irreplaceable to the totality of the sound and organism that is U2.

Mysterious Ways” is another track played to death on rock radio but is nonetheless worth listening to again if only to sing along! “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World” is more laid-back and abstract than the rest of the tracks but has great interlude with Bono lifting his voice into that high register where he demonstrates that he can, in fact, sing with the greats. “Ultra Violet(Light My Way)” is probably the most straightforwardly U2 song on the album with familiar the Edge jangle and chord progression.

Acrobat” has a Lanois trademark sound and pattern with ebb and swell of guitar with a sentiment surely echoed, or at least favored by Lou Reed (“don’t let the bastards grind you down”). The album ends on a dramatic flourish with “Love is Blindness“; pipe organ sound into big echoing bass line, piano and Bono’s vocals with a lot of reverb (possibly affecting a church-like setting) . The lyrics are bitter-sweet and emotional and, as usual, expertly performed but the stand-out element is the guitar solo- it’s the epitome of restraint and expression; no theatrics or showing off, just a thoughtful and beautiful example of the art of making music that makes us feel.

Let me know if you agree/disagree with my take on this album in the comments section; maybe it is I that is deluded and seduced by the artistry, passion and culmination of experience that went into the creation of Achtung Baby!

Balcony View

  • Artist: Massive Attack
  • Title: Mezzanine
  • Released: 1998
  • Format: 180g Vinyl Remaster/CD
  • Genre: Trip Hop/Electronica
  • Beverage of Choice: Neetlingshof Pinotage 2016

Take three of the top production minds in the UK, maybe the world, stir in some top vocal guest talent and you get Massive Attack, one of the most consistent and acclaimed trip hop acts to survive past 1999. The production trio essentially wrote and arranged all the music and then recruited singers as diverse as Shara Nelson, Horace Andy, Elizabeth Fraser, Sinead O’Connor and Damon Alban to lend a hand in making beautiful, atmospheric and, on occasion, menacing music.

Mezzanine‘ was the group’s third album and was released to near-universal acclaim hitting the number one slot on album charts in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. This kind of music has never been hugely popular in the USA but, over the years, there has been an underground organic growth in affection for MA and especially this album.

I purchased the CD shortly after it was released and immediately believed that it was a modern classic. I recently bought the vinyl remaster LP and it opens up the musical experience even more with increased dynamic range and headroom. The samples, layers and effects often employed to convey a sense of paranoia and melancholy are highly effective; evidence the opening track “Angel” with somber bass line, ghostly tabla, high hat in the upper left of the sound-stage and then drums intensify the mood with Horace Andy‘s distinctive voice almost disembodied and ethereal. Then huge distorted guitar sweeps in and dominates the head-space left and right; the song settles down into the previous groove for a chorus and then the guitars drive it forward again, intensifying the mood and eventually exiting to the original combo of bass and cymbal. Just a wonderfully constructed example of what you can create when you focus on the exact recipe with perfect timing in the cook.

Risingson” references lyrics from both Pete Seeger and Lou Reed songs and is an edgy experience with dense effects, dubby elements and a swirling, echoey feeling. “Teardop” is, to me, the standout track on the album; sung by Elizabeth Fraser (former singer for the Cocteau Twins) who also wrote the lyrics, the track reverberates with piano, what sounds like harpsichord, booming bass, scratch track and drums. Super present and alive with a satisfying emotional resonance, the track smolders and burns for its five and half minute duration.

Inertia Creeps” has a great drum sound with a taut snare and half-sung half-whispered vocals. Menacing and intense, it’s the closest you’ll get to a rock song on the album. “Exchange” is a trippy, dub tune with wonderful upright bass sounds and tasty keyboard samples to create a chillout effect after the scariness of the previous track. “Dissolved Girl” kicks off with electronic everything and then the vocals of previously unknown Sara Jay lead to a massive guitar section that drives hard and then falls back to the electronic swirl. Jay’s voice suits the vibe perfectly and the lyrics are heartfelt and yearning, in total accordance with the music. “I need a little love to ease the pain

Man Next Door” has a certain reggae feel that Horace Andy’s vocals complement and includes a sample from The Cure’s song “10.15 Saturday Night” as well as “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin (uncredited on the album). See if you can spot it!

Black Milk” highlights another guest vocal by Elizabeth Fraser and a pattern sample from “Tribute” by Manfred Mann. Surreal lyrics, surreal vibe; another great chillout song. The title track swirls around from ear to ear on headphones with typical MA lowkey vocals weaving in and through a dense electronic sound with over-driven bass. “Group Four” is the longest track at 8’12” and possibly the most atmospheric in nature. What MA do so well is balance all the elements of a song into a cohesive whole while maintaining the individual impact of each instrument, sample, vocal and effect – this is a fantastic example of their artistry in this regard.

The album concludes with “(Exchange)“, with extensive use of samples from Isaac Hayes and Quincy Jones and Horace Andy’s sometimes strange vocal delivery with a philosophical message that bears some thought :”You see a man’s face. You will never know his thoughts”. The track and album fade out with a vinyl scratch that perfectly encapsulates the old school/new school feeling of this masterpiece. Play loud on good headphones; be prepared to be lifted out of body and mind into the chill zone.

The band was scheduled to tour this year after a long hiatus but, unfortunately, have had to postpone due to the Covid-19 situation. Hopefully they will get back to it once the coast is clear!

We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

  • Artist: Rainbow
  • Title: On Stage
  • Released: 1977
  • Format: Original Vinyl/CD/Digital Download
  • Genre: Progressive Rock
  • Beverage of Choice: Brandy and ginger beer

It’s difficult for me to describe the impact of this album on my musical formation other than to say it was immense. At thirteen most of listening was confined to straight-ahead rock and heavy metal (Kiss, Sabbath etc.) and I had no idea that improvisational forms of the music could sound like Rainbow live. I’ve worn out two copies of the vinyl format through the intervening years and it’s still my ‘go-to’ version with the CD emphasizing some of the limitations of 70’s recording technology and the vinyl enlivening the experience with natural ambiance.

From their traditional opening of a snippet from The Wizard of Oz , Rainbow rocks hard on “Kill the King” (which was a song that would only be released on their next studio album ‘Long Live Rock n Roll‘). This particular lineup of an ever-changing legion of top-notch musicians, in my opinion, is the one that will be remembered as the best. Ritchie Blackmore was notoriously difficult to work for/with (and it was always understood that it was Ritchie’s band) and drummers, singers and bassists would come and go with monotonous regularity during the band’s lifetime. This crew with Cozy Powell on drums, Tony Carey on keyboards, Jimmy Bain (RIP) on bass and the inimitable Ronnie James Dio (also departed) providing his unmistakable yowl n growl were so perfectly in sync and tight/loose that it must have been an otherworldly experience to catch them live during the period they were together (circa 1975-1978).

Medley/Man on the Silver Mountain” highlights the band’s chops with an extended jam showcasing each instrument and Ronnie in fine vocal form; listening to the way they swing at the 8’30” mark brings to mind brings to mind some of Led Zeppelin’s best moments and sets the standard for the rest of the album.

Catch the Rainbow“, the longest cut at over fifteen minutes, is the track that mesmerized the thirteen year old version of myself and opened my mind/ears to what was possible within the realms of ‘heavy’ rock. Melodic and almost pastoral keyboards and vocals lead off with Ritchie adding guitar flourishes and runs along the way. Listen to the way the rhythm section creates space and enhances the flow of the music while being restrained and tight. The dynamic range plays a large part in the effect of the music and creates a progressive dimension that isn’t typical of rock or metal with soft/loud and slow/fast combinations highlighting the prowess of the band members. Of course, Blackmore’s playing takes over the lead around halfway through and drives the momentum of the song to the end. One of my top five live tracks.

On the theme of ‘live’ recordings, it’s always been challenging for artists and engineers to fully capture the live experience. With so many variables at play both internal and external, the impact of attending a concert is highly subjective. I’ve been to shows of big name artists with high expectations and come away disappointed. In contrast I’ve spontaneously gone to see an artist I’ve never heard of and been blown away. So herewith, a short list of other great live albums (in no specific order): “Live and Dangerous” – Thin Lizzy; “Live from Mars” – Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals; “The Alice Cooper Show” – Alice Cooper; “Stop Making Sense” – Talking Heads; “Strangers in the Night” – UFO).

Mistreated” is dominated by Blackmore’s amazing dexterity and fluidity on guitar. The rest of the band does get to play a part though after a couple of minutes and they swing like mad. Tony Carey is simply wonderful on his massive electronics rig and is more than a match for Ritchie’s over-driven Telecaster theatrics; Cozy Powell dictates the tempo and his fills are an example of how to support the sound without taking it over for any aspiring jazz/rock/metal drummer.

Sixteenth Century Greensleeves” is an early indicator of Blackmore’s obsession with renaissance folk music and is an intricate and beautiful example of mixing different forms of music together to come up with something new. Dio’s vocals are typically powerful and melodic; really the man couldn’t sing out of tune if he tried and the world is a poorer place without Ronnie. Again the bass and drum foundation on the track is top echelon, tightening the overall effect without constraining the band.

The final track,”Still I’m Sad“, is a cover of a Yardbirds’ tune but so expanded that it sounds like an original Rainbow/Deep Purple creation. The band is as tight as a wound up spring and lets the energy loose in various sections of eleven minutes of showmanship, highlighting each instrument in turn. A fitting end to an amazing hour of music; I never got to see Rainbow (or Ronnie James Dio) live but this album is my solace and, whenever I play it, I am transported again to the delight of discovery that has stood the test of time for over forty years.

The Happy One

  • Artist: The Blue Nile
  • Title: Peace at Last
  • Released: 1996
  • Format: CD
  • Genre: Alternative Pop
  • Beverage of Choice: The Macallan 18

When The Blue Nile finally released ‘Peace at Last‘, after seven years of almost complete radio-silence, the subject matter, tone and instrumentation of the album were a huge surprise to me and, I gather, the majority of their fans. Always enigmatic, the band had spent the years between the release of ‘Hats‘ and Peace at Last doing almost everything but writing and recording; they did gain a reputation for perfectionism and an idiosyncratic approach to the music industry and the production process in general. How much of the reputation was deserved or simply a marketing ploy will most likely remain a mystery as the band, having being (unofficially) split up since 2005, are notoriously ‘shy’ when it comes to interviews and media.

Where the previous two offerings had a generally pessimistic view of the world, with stark arrangements driven by synthesizer and electronic drums, this album is, by comparison, warm and lush with a more positive and contented vibe. By arranging the music with acoustic guitar and piano leading the mix and synth/electronic strings in the background, the music sounds intimate and enveloping as opposed to distant and cold.

The lead-off track, “Happiness“, is my one of my favorite pop songs of all time with a gorgeous vocal performance from Paul Buchanan and a gospel choir backing on the chorus. The tune is simple and direct with lyrics that point towards a domesticated bliss, possibly the result of a maturing experience in the years between recordings. Buchanan wrote all the songs bar one (“God Bless You Kid”, which was co-written by Robert Bell) and his creative attention to detail, nuance and the emotive power of tone and space in the music drives the album with a cohesion and style that are uniquely his own.

Tomorrow Morning” is pushed along again by Buchanan’s guitar but listen carefully to the piano fills, hand-claps and string backing that turn a deceptively straightforward little song into a beautiful example of doing more with less.

Sentimental Man” has a wide-open feel to the arrangement with syncopated drums/guitar/bass creating a framework for sweeping synth strings and a passionate vocal delivery. Electric guitar towards the back end of the song adds color and tension, saving the tune from being overly syrupy with a funkier feeling.

Love Came Down” features, once again, strummed acoustic guitar as the leading instrument with structural elements provided by bass, drums and keys; Buchanan has an effortless vocal range and shows it off to good effect with transitions to a breathy falsetto at times.

Body and Soul” offers the most uplifting lyrics and a glimpse into the songwriter’s emotional plane; sweet and soaring strings (real this time) create a glorious picture of connectedness and love-struck ambiance.

“On Sundays we will go walking
And God willing
We’re breathing the same sky
Please believe me
The past is nothing
God is willing
I’ll love you ’til I die”

Holy Love” is a standout song on the album with a very different feel; more jazz than pop and an example of Buchanan’s vocal prowess in the upper register. Synth choir in the backing and electric guitar increase the interest but the song is just too short!

Family Life” returns to more familiar ground for the Blue Nile, in effect more melancholy than the rest of the album but still lushly scored with piano and strings so that the warm and intimate vibe is preserved. In my opinion you can hear some of Peter Gabriel‘s influence on Buchanan in the song structure and vocals; Gabriel was/is a key figure in The Blue Nile’s success and championed the group throughout their career.

God Bless You Kid” is the most like the rest of Blue Nile’s catalog being less guitar-driven and more focused on electronic instrumentation. Thematically, the song also provides less of an internal snapshot of emotion and is more abstract and distant.

The final tune, “Soon“, leads off with organ setting on the synthesizer and then horns punctuate the lush vocals; typically Blue Nile but also warm and optimistic leaving us with a cosy feeling that all is well in the world and love is all we need.

With only four albums in their catalog, The Blue Nile can’t really be said to have changed the world but they certainly provide a huge amount of artistic expression, musical perfection and emotional resonance in a small package. I’ll be spinning this disc for all the years to come and I hope you too fall under it’s spell after a few listens.

Worth the Wait

  • Artist: Tool
  • Title: Fear Inoculum
  • Released: 2019
  • Format: Digital Download
  • Genre: Alternative Metal
  • Beverage of Choice: Irish Breakfast Tea

This is one of those times when I am going to break my own rules simply because this album will become a ‘classic’; in my opinion, the highlight of Tool‘s storied career and catalog. I’ve refrained from reading the music press reviews on this album but my suspicion is that most music critics who aren’t totally lame-brained will have rated this effort 4/5 or 5/5. With the length of time it takes the band to record and release albums it’s possible the band will age out and never produce a work so purely focused and executed ever again.

Tool’s trajectory from hard rock/metal radio-friendly offerings to prog-rock nerds is well-documented and I love all their music but they have been mining the negative vein (at least lyrically) for a long time now. There is something of a sea change on this album with lyrics and themes that, although typically obscure, are less neurotic and depressing and even, I daresay, hopeful. Their music in the past has hinted at what they could become with interludes of great beauty and complexity, always with a hard edge that keeps the tension to the forefront.

Fear Inoculum, in my view, combines all of the collective gifting, experience and emotional intelligence from the band and delivers it in a breathtaking set of 7 ‘real’ songs and 4 interludes. The album is constructed somewhat like a symphony with various parts and movements making up the whole around a central theme. It is long at 86 minutes but there is no fat, lethargy or navel-gazing to detract from the listening experience or turn engagement into boredom. I’ve listened to the entire album a couple dozen times now and have come away from each session energized, delighted and amazed afresh at the incredible sheer talent of the musicians and how uplifting, expansive and mesmerizing the songs are.

I’m not going to expand on exhaustive track-by-track listening notes, instead I want to try and give you an idea of the range of emotions and impressions that the music extracts from me. From the very first bar of the title track, the music creates tension and expectation with a slow build of momentum and expanding thematic elements. Precision and clarity have always been important to Tool and this album goes to the next level in terms of a focused, transparent and open production. The tracks build layer upon layer of complexity and dynamic range creating loops of evolving time signatures and nuanced shadings of light and dark, soft and loud, tight and loose all at the same time.

At times the music lulls one into a comfortable groove and then explodes into a huge driving riff with Danny Carey’s drums setting the pace and drama; his drumming is next-level and Carey seems to never play a bar the same way. If you do listen to this album more than once, take the opportunity to focus only on the drumming throughout and I guarantee you will come away totally amazed and stupefied. I doubt there is another drummer in any genre that can hang with Danny Carey. If he ever was forced to play a straightforward time signature he’d probably invent some way to fold it into a pretzel shape and play it that way.

This is music for musicians, sure, but it’s also accessible to anyone who simply likes to experience well-written, well-structured and well-executed art. And art it is; this is not throw-away generic pap but music to be embraced, memorized, experienced and loved for a lifetime. Listen to this album in one sitting if you get a chance and, if I’m overstating my case, let me know in the comments section!