Matt Harlan: Raven Hotel

August 19th, 2014

MattHarlan_RavenHotelTexas singer-songwriter is a poet and storyteller

Matt Harlan is a singer-songwriter whose original folk tunes are leavened with country twang and dusted with Texas soul. He’s tramped the blue highways of the U.S. and Europe (and written this album’s “Raven Hotel” about the ravages of touring), played intimate stages, house concerts and festivals, was lauded as last year’s Texas Music Award singer-songwriter of the year, and was featured alongside Guy Clark and Lyle Lovett in the documentary For the Sake of the Song. After a sophomore effort recorded with a Danish backing band, he’s returned to Texas to lay down a dozen new originals with help from Bukka Allen, Mickey Raphael and other area luminaries.

Harlan’s both a storyteller and a poet, illustrating his stories with memorable similes, and realizing his images with narrative detail. His lyrics of hard times take on the weary tone of Chris Knight, but unlike Knight’s often unrelenting bleakness, Harlan’s troubles are redeemed by dreams of forgiveness and the possibility of progress. The wounds of “We Never Met” are addressed with a fatalism that points forward, and the haggard trucker’s regrets in the superbly drawn “Second Gear” are grounded in hard-worn pride. Social commentary and glances towards the exit are juxtaposed in “Rock & Roll,” with an electric backing and matter-of-fact vocal that echoes Dire Straits.

Harlan turns to jazz with “Burgandy and Blue,” and to blues with “Slow Moving Train”; the latter features Mickey Raphael’s unmistakable harmonica and a duet vocal from Harlan’s wife, Rachel Jones. Jones brings a delicate, whisper-edged lead vocal to the free-spirited “Riding with the Wind.” The album closes with its most overt declarations of hope and dreams in “The Optimist” and “Rearview Display,” though as is Harlan’s way, his protagonists are clear-eyed as they contemplate the burdens of both limitations and freedom. This is a deeply written collection, sung with a storyteller’s magnetism and a poet’s magic. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Matt Harlan’s Home Page

Nick Heyward: He Doesn’t Love You Like I Do

August 18th, 2014

Remember when this song was everywhere, and you bought the album From Monday to Sunday and thought that as refreshing as had been Haircut 100′s Pelican West, Nick Heyward’s solo work was taking things to a new level? Then, remember how over the years you’d pull out this album to relive its catchy melodies and spot-on vocals, harmonies, arrangements and production? Remember that? No? Well, in a just world, that’s how it would have played out. Luckily, in this commercially fickle world, the album sounds just as good today as it did in 1994, whether you heard it back then or not.

Carolina Story: Chapter Two

July 27th, 2014

CarolinaStory_ChapterTwoStrong country duets from Nashville husband and wife

The empathy shared by great duet singers can take your breath away. The ways in which a duo’s voices complement, compete and provoke one another, the weaving of a harmony line above, below and around a melody, and the connection of two voices as they race around banked curves make listeners eavesdroppers as much audience. The Nashville-based Carolina Story, Ben and Emily Roberts, is just such a pair, a married couple whose duets bring mind the the Everly Brothers, Richard & Mimi Farina, and the more recent twang of Holly Golightly and the Brokeoffs.

The opening pair of tracks from this six-song EP sets the bar high. The first finds the duo rolling along to acoustic guitar, banjo, steel and a light beat as they celebrate the forging of their professional and matrimonial relationships in the crucible of a tour. The follow-on “Crash and Burn” is touched with blues, Dan Dugmore’s hard-twanging steel and a vocal that careens into a yodel. As memorable as are their duets, their solo turns on “When I Was Just a Boy” and “The Stranger,” show off lyrical voices steeped heavily in emotional reflection.

The set rolls to a close with the irrepressible duets “I Won’t Let You Down” and “I’m Gonna Love You Forever.” The former would have fit nicely into the 1990s era that found Mary Chapin Carpenter, Patty Loveless and Martina McBride breaking through to radio; the latter is an upbeat love song whose thesis is as direct as the song’s title. Paired with last year’s Chapter One, these six new tracks extend a partnership whose personal dimensions continue to pay off in artistic wealth. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Carolina Story’s Home Page

Various Artists: Audio with a G – Sounds of a Jersey Boy

July 19th, 2014

Various_AudioWithAGThe man who wrote the Four Seasons to the top of the charts

Although Frankie Valli stood out front of the Four Seasons, and his name was prefixed to the group’s starting in 1970, the act’s commercial success was equally dependent on their long-time songwriter and keyboardist, Bob Gaudio. Gaudio not only played and sang with the group, but he penned the bulk of their biggest hits, including chart-toppers, “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Rag Doll,” the group’s mid-70s comebacks, “Who Loves You” and “December 1963 (Oh What a Night),” and Frankie Valli’s solo hit “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” Incredibly, that’s just a few of his accomplishments, as he wrote many more singles, B-sides and album tracks for the Four Seasons, and scored hits with several other acts.

Rhino’s two-disc set collects thirty-six tracks that sample Gaudio’s songwriting, including material from the Four Seasons, Jerry Butler, Chuck Jackson, Cher, Nancy Wilson, Frank Sinatra, Nina Simone, Diana Ross, Roberta Flack, Lene Lovich, Ruthie Henshall, the Royal Teens, Bay City Rollers, Tremeloes, Walker Brothers and Temptations. The Four Seasons material features hits and album tracks, including a pair from the group’s Gaudio-Jake Holmes penned 1969 concept album, The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette. Perhaps more interesting to Four Seasons fans will be songs Gaudio wrote for or turned into hits for other acts.

The Royal Teens’ “Short Shorts” opens the set, as it did Gaudio’s hit-making career. The single rose to #3 in 1958 and Gaudio dropped out of high school to tour, meeting Frankie Valli along the way. Gaudio and Valli joined forces in 1960 to form the Four Seasons with Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi, but it took another two years for them to hit with “Sherry.” Gaudio wrote many of his hits with producer Bob Crewe, and several of the Four Seasons’ songs became hits for other acts. Included in this set are the Tremeloes’ “Silence is Golden,” which had been the B-side of the Four Seasons’ “Rag Doll,” and the Walker Brothers’ “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” which had been released in a slower arrangement as a Frankie Valli solo single.

The many covers of Frankie Valli’s 1967 hit “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” are represented here by a smokey, soul-jazz version by Nancy Wilson that cracked the charts in 1969 and a 1982 disco remake by Boys Town Gang. The Four Seasons 1975 UK hit, “The Night,” is included in both its original version and a non-charting single by Lene Lovich. Reaching farther out are songs that Gaudio wrote for Frank Sinatra, Nina Simone and Diana Ross. Sinatra’s tracks are drawn from Watertown, a concept album written by Gaudio and Jake Holmes that married the singer’s ability to sound forlorn with the songwriters’ pop craft. Ross’ tracks date from 1973′s underappreciated Last Time I Saw Him, recorded during a period in which the Four Seasons were signed to Motown.

Gaudio’s songwriting moved with the times, gaining social consciousness in the mid-60s, striking a deeper personal resonance with Jake Holmes at decade’s end, resuscitating the Four Seasons chart fortunes in 1975 with “Who Loves You” and “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night),” and surviving then-modern productions for The Temptations and Roberta Flack. He became a successful record producer and writer for soundtracks and musical theater. His stage work is represented here by two songs from the original London cast recording of Peggy Sue Got Married, and three (including “Sherry”) from the original cast recording of Jersey Boys. The latter is a project that began with Gaudio’s idea of a showcase for the Four Seasons’ material, and blossomed into national and international productions and, in parallel with this set (and two others) a feature film.

Compilation producer Charles Alexander has drawn from both mono (tracks 1, 7, 8, 11) and stereo masters, giving listeners a chance to hear two of the Four Seasons biggest hits in the punchy single mixes that dominated AM radio. These two discs (clocking in at just under two hours) cover the commercial highlights of Gaudio’s career as a hit-making songwriter. There’s more of his craft to be found in the Four Seasons’ albums, Frankie Valli’s solo releases, and his productions for Eric Carmen, Neil Diamond, Barbra Streisand and others. The inclusion of the Four Seasons’ hits is essential to telling his story, but also likely to duplicate the holdings of this set’s primary buyers; then again, with songs this good, who’s going to complain? [©2014 Hyperbolium]


The Zombies: R.I.P.

July 12th, 2014

Zombies_RIPPreviously unreleased final album sees the light of day

One might say that this final, previously unreleased Zombies album is something of a Frankenstein’s monster. Constructed after the band’s dissolution in 1968, the six previously unreleased Zombies tracks and six new tracks recorded by a prototype of Argent were meant to satiate an American market that had been late to discover “Time of the Season.” But the album’s pre-release singles (“Imagine the Swan” and “If it Don’t Work Out”) failed to ignite any commercial interest, and the album was shelved by the American label that had requested it in the first place. The tracks dribbled out on singles, compilations (most notably the double-LP Time of the Zombies and Ace Record’s omnibus Zombie Heaven box set) and bootlegs, but an official issue of the original running order from the original master takes had evaded fans until now.

The album, as the last-remaining-Zombies-standing Rod Argent and Chris White conceived it, was neatly split in two: side one was written by Argent and White, and performed by Argent, White, Russ Ballard, Jim Rodford and Bob Henrit, in a line-up soon to be known as Argent; side two was assembled from previously unreleased tracks that had been recorded years earlier by the original group, and brushed up by Argent and White (notably with backing vocals and orchestral touches) for the album. There’s a musical seam between the two sides, but the new recordings aren’t a complete departure. In fact, they sound like what they actually were: a follow-on to the progressive end-times of the original line-up’s Odyssey and Oracle, heavily influenced by the band’s keyboardist.

Listeners familiar with the Zombies’ hits will immediately resonate with Colin Blunstone’s lead vocals and the group’s harmonies on side two. These earlier songs also have beat and baroque pop touches that are closely associated with the Zombies original sound. Argent and White’s material on side two, sung by Argent, including an organ jam, “Conversation Off Floral Street” (a track that was apparently mislabeled with “of” on the singles of the time), and slinky piano-led “I Could Spend the Day” that speak to the jazz inflections of “Time of the Season.” Both album sides have material that is as good as anything the Zombie released during their hit-making tenure, including the singles “Imagine the Swan” and “If It Don’t Work Out,” featured here in both stereo album and mono single mixes.

Zombies fans probably have most or all of this material on compilations and box sets, but it’s still worth hearing the original stereo mixes, in the original sequence, from the album’s master tape. The mono single mix of “Don’t Cry For Me” (the flipside of “If it Don’t Work Out”) is offered here for the first time in a digital format, and the mono mix of “Smokey Day” makes its first-ever appearance. Despite the album’s cobbled-together origin, this is a volume that belongs on the shelf right next to Begin Here, The Zombies and Odyssey and Oracle, extending the criminally under-rewarded brilliance of the Zombies. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

The Zombies’ Home Page

Willie Nelson: Band of Brothers

July 10th, 2014

WillieNelson_BandOfBrothersWillie Nelson returns to songwriting

Willie Nelson’s having quite a renaissance. With Sony’s Legacy division having broadened their scope from reissues to include new material from heritage artists, Nelson’s settled into a surprisingly comfortable home. His turn to classic Americana with Country Music and Remember Me, Vol. 1 led him back to his longtime home at Columbia (now part of Sony) for 2012′s Heroes, last year’s stroll through a set of standards, Let’s Face the Music and Dance and a set of duets, To All the Girls. On his latest, Nelson supplements his resurgent vocal and performing talents with a return to songwriting, penning nine new originals for this set of fourteen tracks.

At 81, Nelson still sounds remarkably fresh, and the cleverness of his lyrics is (as always) buoyed by deeper truths. The songs include the emotionally penetrating lyrics for which he’s renowned, ranging from low-key introspection to the mid-tempo cheek of “Wives and Girlfriends” and “Used to Her.” Nelson’s hiatus from songwriting is the subject of “Guitar in the Corner,” but in typical fashion there’s more than one layer, as he could just as easily be singing about rekindling an interpersonal relationship as returning to songwriting. The selection of covers include titles by Vince Gill, Shawn Camp and Bill Anderson; the latter’s “The Songwriters” is an apt selection for an album on which Nelson’s own pen has reemerged.

Buddy Cannon’s production and the hand-picked band (highlighted by Tommy White’s steel and Jim “Moose” Brown’s piano, and featuring the ever-present harmonica of Mickey Raphael) are spot-on, leaving room for Nelson’s gut-string guitar and idiosyncratic vocal phrasings. Jamie Johnson is the album’s only guest, adding a Waylon-like gravity on a duet of Billy Joe Shaver’s “The Git Go.” Nelson’s artistry is no surprise, but his continued enthusiasm for recording, and his revived interest in writing, is producing unexpected dividends for his many fans. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Willie Nelson’s Home Page

Janiva Magness: Original

July 8th, 2014

JanivaMagness_OriginalBlues-soaked soul

Though Janiva Magness began her music career in the 1980s, she didn’t move to Los Angeles and start recording until the 1990s. By that point, radio had fragmented, and the opportunities for soulful blues-based vocalists to break into the mainstream were a great deal more limited. Had she jump-started her career a decade (or two) earlier, she might have ridden the wave of popular blues that found Bonnie Raitt establishing herself commercially. But even with that ship having sailed, it’s surprising that none of Magness’ work broke through alongside the popular neo-soul success of Amy Winehouse, Adele and others. Her award-heavy career has made her a star in the blues world, though, and perhaps that’s the best place for someone who wants to have a long career that stays true to their soul.

Magness picked up a lot of life’s grit at an early age; orphaned in her teens, she spent time on the streets and became pregnant at 17. But she was saved by the blues, and working in a recording studio she graduated from technical work to background singing and eventually to the spotlight. She turned out performances that were tough, sultry and soulful, retooling other people’s material (often surprisingly, such as her version of Matthew Sweet’s “Thought I Knew You“) to meet her artistic needs. But with her latest, she’s dug into the emotions of recent turmoil (divorce, the deaths of friends, family and pets, and a neck injury that almost ended her career) to create her first full album full of original material.

Magness doesn’t spare herself in the analysis, opening the album with an admission of fault and a quest for solid ground. She gives pep talks (“Twice as Strong” and “The Hard Way”), most likely to herself, but still feels loss and longing (“When You Were My King” and “I Need a Man”). The album’s steps towards recovery include hard truths, commiseration and the slow return of trust. There are moments of bargaining (“Mountain”) and recrimination (“Badass”), but the songs are surprisingly light on bitterness. The closer, “Standing,” is sung with a vocal waver whose aching vulnerability brings to mind Ronnie Spector and Patty Scialfa.

Producer Dave Darling frames Magness’ earthiness in arrangements that recall the warm instrumental voices of classic soul, but with a few production touches that lend a modern air. The music seems to buoy Magness willingness to expose herself firsthand, rather than through interpretation. It’s a big step for someone who’d long-since talked themselves out of writing, a step that began with 2012′s Stronger for It, but became a necessity with the past few years’ personal trials. Perhaps she was too busy living her life to think about it as subject matter, but as she demonstrates on this new album, there’s a unique connection to be found with one’s own story. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Janiva Magness’ Home Page

The Farewell Drifters: Tomorrow Forever

July 8th, 2014

FarewellDrifters_TomorrowForeverSuperb melding of acoustic roots, folk-rock and pop

Nashville’s Farewell Drifters are often likened to the Avett Brothers, Fleet Foxes and Mumford & Sons, and though there’s merit in these comparisons, lead vocalist Zach Bevill’s earnest tone often has more in common with the uplift of Tim DeLaughter’s Polyphonic Spree than acoustic roots acts. The group’s anthemic unison singing, and the addition of drums and electric guitar, bring to mind the Spree’s larger productions, and the Farewell Drifters’ citation of Brian Wilson as a primary influence is heard in touches of 1960s harmony, such as the opening chorale of “Starting Over,” and the instrumental production.

The opening “Modern Age” spins up from its plaintive start to a rousing mid-tempo awakening, with group vocals and an orchestral chime for extra lift. The acoustic strums of “Bring ‘em Back Around” similarly build into a full-on rock song (with nostalgic lyrics that press many the same emotional buttons as Jonathan Richman’s “That Summer Feeling“), and “Motions” turns from spare piano into a drum-and-strings crescendo, transforming the lyric’s pessimistic premise into an optimistic expectation. The productions aren’t as grandiose as Art Decade‘s orchestral rock, but they draw inspiration from the same pop-rock well.

The group’s harmony singing and Americana roots show in the Band-like “Brother,” as well as the martial drum and banjo of “Tomorrow Forever.” The album’s forward motion – both musical and lyrical – is often stoked by backward glances. The chime added to the shuffling drum of “Tennessee Girl” adds a modern sound to a classic rhythm, just as the protagonist’s advance is connected to his past. There are threads of disappointment and hope throughout the album, suggesting that growth comes more often from studied failure than a safe lack of trying. It’s an empowering message, and one the Drifters communicate winningly in both words and music. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

The Farewell Drifters’ Home Page

NRBQ: Brass Tacks

July 6th, 2014

NRBQ_BrassTacksTerry Adams’ latter-day NRBQ keeps chugging along

The discussion no doubt rages on, as to whether founding member Terry Adams’ reconstituted lineup should be using the NRBQ name. Even Adams wasn’t so sure back in 1989. But with the band’s long-time lineup starting to fray in 1994, and an official hiatus ten years later, a number of interrelated projects took the group members in various directions. Adams, who turned out to have been dealing with throat cancer, returned to full-time music-making with the Terry Adams Rock & Roll Quartet in 2007, and four years later, with the rest of NRBQ still dispersed in other bands and projects, reapplied the NRBQ name to his quartet for the album Keep This Love Goin’.

Is it NRBQ? Many of the original band’s fans would probably say ‘no,’ but Adams, guitarist Scott Ligon, drummer Conrad Choucroun and bassist Casey McDonough, certainly carry on the NRBQ ethos of musical taste, deep knowledge and an irreverent sense of adventure. You need a pack full of hyphens to describe their mosaic of R&B, jazz, sunshine pop, country, folk and rockabilly, and their topics range from sweet (“Can’t Wait to Kiss You”) to loopy (“Greetings from Delaware”) to fantastical (“This Flat Tire”), and their music even stretches to a cover of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Getting to Know You” that’s more California sunshine than old Siam. Call them what you will, just make sure to call their music really good. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

NRBQ’s Home Page

Tom Freund: Two Moons

July 6th, 2014

TomFreund_TwoMoonsFormer Silos bassist extends his catalog as a singer-songwriter

Tom Freund is a songwriter who’s something of a musical chameleon. His latest release opens with “Angel Eyes,” a tune whose sharp edged lyric, “funny how when you leave L.A. you gotta drive into the desert / out of the frying pan and into the fire,” is worthy of Randy Newman. Freund’s lap steel further echoes Los Angeles with its David-Lindley-esque tone, and his guitar complements Al Gamble’s organ on “Heavy Balloon” with atmospheric notes and a meaty solo that builds the track to its close. The latter is a fitting background to a lyric that graduates from ambivalence to skepticism to possibility to hope.

Such sophisticated, and often contrasting, shades of emotion are central to Freund’s songwriting. “Happy Days Lunch Box,” ostensibly a nostalgic tribute to childhood, is freighted with adult hindsight, and the anti-love song “Next Time Around” paradoxically embraces the missing embrace of a partner and wraps it in a 20s-styled tune. The album’s bittersweet closer “Sweetie Pie” is an appreciation of a love that’s ended, sung to acoustic guitar and bass. Freund has a nasally voice that suggests Dylan, songwriter Moon Martin, and on the riff-driven “Grooves Out of My Heart,” Joe Walsh, with a nod to Led Zeppelin in the fadeout for good measure.

Freund phrases like Paul Simon on “Same Old Shit Different Day,” and his plea for acceptance “Let Me Be Who I Wanna Be” provides the same sort of rallying flag as Sonny Bono’s “Laugh at Me,” but with a tone that’s satisfied rather than reactionary. In addition to the deft songwriting and wide-ranging musical palette, Freund’s production includes well-placed touches of strings, horns, ukulele and vintage keyboards, guest harmonica from Stan Behrens, and backing vocals from Ben Harper, Brett Dennen and Serena Ryder. Freund’s imagination as a songwriter is matched by his reach as an arranger and producer, making this collection both varied and cohesive. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Tom Freund’s Home Page