Otis Taylor: Fantasizing About Being Black

February 25th, 2017

Timely observations of the African-American experience

Otis Taylor continues to create a very individual sound. The heart of his music is in the blues, but he sings in short phrases and plays in circular grooves that invoke a trance-like mood; and with Ron Miles’ cornet and guest string players Jerry Douglas and Brandon Niederauer, he adds jazz, Americana and Latin flavors. It’s a powerful musical base for his latest album of original material, essaying the African American experience from slavery to heroism, and documenting racism, hatred, violence and fear as constant, unwanted companions. The opening “Twelve String Mile” echoes Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, but the album quickly turns to the ways in which unsolicited notice unilaterally distorts African-American lives.

Though its timing with the divisional ascent of Donald Trump is apparently coincidental, Taylor’s songs foretell the renewal of dynamics that have haunted African Americans since their forced arrival on U.S. shores. In the world Taylor describes, freedom is often found only in the mind, and every day trials – break-ups, affairs, adoption, protests – gain an extra dimension of complexity with race factored in. Taylor is backed by bass and drums as he moves between electric and acoustic guitars, and adds touches of banjo. He sings the first-hand experiences you expect from the blues, but with an historical reach that makes the album even more potent. The timing may be coincidental, but the current political context heightens the work’s power. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Otis Taylor’s Home Page

The Masonics: Obermann Rides Again

February 25th, 2017

Ferocious Medway rock ‘n’ roll

Fans of Thee Headcoats, Mighty Casears and Prisoners will rejoice at the ninth album from this all-star Medway band. Fronted by ex-Milkshake Mickey Hampshire on guitar, and backed by drummer Bruce Brand (Pop Rivets, Milkshakes) and bassist John Gibbs (Kaisers), the Masonics offer the perfect combination of unpolished garage rock and blues-based melodies – something you might call rough ‘n’ roll. Even the ballad “I Don’t Understand Her Any More” isn’t exactly tender, with Hampshire pleading his case as more of a complaint than a concern, and the Animals-like “What Do You Do” providing a sobering, after-the-fact look in the mirror. The trio channels Bo Diddley’s rhythmic stomp in “You Don’t Have to Travel” and “The Unsignposted Road,” crank up the tempo to amphetamine punk for “You’re a Stranger,” and nail the combustible tension of the early Who with “You Won’t See Me Again.” The band’s energy is relentless as Hampshire picks guitar solos and Brand rides his cymbals, creating music that’s perfect for a sweaty, overcrowded beer-stained venue near you. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

The Masonics’ Facebook Page

Shinyribs: I Got Your Medicine

February 24th, 2017

Stupendous gulf coast soul sounds

When we first heard Kevin “Shinyribs” Russell as a solo artist on 2010’s Well After Awhile, he was taking a short break from his Austin band, The Gourds. Since that time the group regrouped for Old Mad Joy, starred in the documentary All the Labor, and then declared themselves on hiatus. Russell’s used the free time to expand his solo catalog with albums in 2013 and 2015, and now offers a deep soak in Southern soul, co-produced by Jimbo Mathus. The band simmers New Orleans rhythm ‘n’ roll, Memphis soul and Louisiana swamp pop into a unique gulf coast stew whose flavor is enhanced by the Tijuana Train Wreck Horns (Tiger Anaya and Mark Wilson) and the backing vocals of the Shiny Soul Sisters (Alice Spencer and Sally Allen).

This, it turns out, is the band Russell has been waiting for, and he makes the most of them across nine originals and three covers, the latter including superb versions of Allen Toussaint’s oft recordedA Certain Girl,” Ted Hawkins’ “I Gave Up All I Had” and Toussaint McCall’s heartbreaking “Nothing Takes the Place of You.” With the horns goosing the up-tempo numbers, going sly at mid-tempo and lining the ballads, Russell reaches into deep wells of ecstasy and sorrow, fueling an incredible display of soul singing. Spencer steps forward for the thorny duet “I Don’t Give a Sh*t,” and the album closes with the gospel original “The Cross is Boss.” If you’re sick of today’s vacant, auto-tuned pop, Shinyribs definitely has your medicine. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

RIYL: Allen Toussaint, Ernie K-Doe, the Neville Brothers, Tony Joe White

Shinyribs’ Home Page

Roy Orbison: Black & White Night 30

February 24th, 2017

Bonus-laden reissue of stellar 1987 all-star tribute to Roy Orbison

Rarely have stars aligned so figuratively and literally as for this Roy Orbison concert. More than a gathering of famous fans, the performance was a testimonial to the Big O’s lasting impact and enduring artistry. Backing Orbison was Elvis Presley’s TCB Band of Ron Tutt (drums), Jerry Scheff (bass), Glen D. Hardin (piano) and James Burton (electric guitar), augmented by Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Alex Acuna, Tom Waits and T Bone Burnett, a backing chorus of k.d. lang, Jennifer Warnes, Bonnie Raitt, J.D. Souther, Steven Soles and Jackson Browne, and a quartet of violins and violas. Recorded at the Cocoanut Grove in Hollywood’s Ambassador Hotel, the program was cablecast on Cinemax and released as a live album. It’s subsequently been reissued on VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, CD, SACD and was turned into a PBS fundraising perennial.

The song list mixes Orbison’s biggest hits with a few lesser-known selections, including the B-sides “Leah” and “Go! Go! Go! (Move on Down the Line).” The latter finds Burton, Orbison and Springsteen trading guitar solos, and the look on Springsteen’s face as he plays for Orbison is priceless. Throughout the program there’s an overarching sense of admiration as the band and guests are spellbound by Orbison’s operatic flights and emotion-drenched songs. Springsteen is giddy as he sidles up behind Orbison to sing harmony on “Sweet Dream Baby,” and when Orbison nails the climax of “Crying,” the band stops to applaud along with the audience. Although the group rehearsed twice before the show, you get the feeling that these artists had been singing and playing these songs their entire musical lives, and that they weren’t just paying fealty to Orbison, they were paying back a debt.

So why another reissue? Aside from leveraging the thirtieth anniversary to introduce this one-of-kind performance to a new generation, the new DVD and Blu-ray include previously unseen performances, newly integrated camera angles and a mini-documentary, and the running order has also been restored to reflect the set as it was played. The new performances include “Blue Angel” and a shorter alternate take of “Oh, Pretty Woman,” and five songs (“(All I Can Do Is) Dream You,” “The Comedians,” “Candy Man,” “Claudette” and “Uptown”) performed after the audience left for the evening. The 37-minute documentary includes rehearsal footage, along with pre- and post-show interviews with Springsteen, Costello, lang, Raitt and Browne. All together, the new cut of the concert and the generous extras provide a terrific complement to (though not a replacement for) the original release.

At the time of its original release, the special helped launch Orbison’s commercial renewal, which included the Mystery Girl album, and his collaboration with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne in the Traveling Wilburys. But years of neglecting his health caught up to Orbison fourteenth months after taping the concert, and he died of a heart attack in December 1988 at the age of 52. His recorded legacy is now being tended to by his sons Alex and Roy Jr., the former of whom co-edited the video, and the latter of whom wrote the liners. Roy’s Boys also supervised the recent restoration of Orbison’s MGM catalog and the release of the missing album One of the Lonely Ones. As with those earlier projects, the restoration and expansion of this performance honors their father’s legacy and shows in stark black and white, the broad, long-lasting impact of his music. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Roy Orbison’s Home Page

OST: The Greatest

February 22nd, 2017

1977 Muhammad Ali biopic soundtrack reissue with bonuses

Muhammad Ali’s 1977 biopic was drawn from his like-titled biography, and though Ali was arguably the greatest boxer of all time, he wasn’t the greatest actor, even when playing himself. Which is strange, because in real life he played the character of Muhammad Ali with incredible creativity, charisma and panache. Perhaps it was a disconnect with the script (courtesy of noted journalist and screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr.) or director, but the physical and intellectual poetry of his real life didn’t come through on the screen. The film’s soundtrack is remembered largely for the song “The Greatest Love of All,” a #2 R&B hit for George Benson, and even more famously taken to the top of the charts by Whitney Houston in 1985. Others may remember the song from Eddie Murphy’s performance in Coming to America.

The original soundtrack album also includes an instrumental version of the hit and two versions of Benson performing “I Always Knew I Had It in Me,” once with a driving rhythm and jazzy guitar, and once as a ballad. The remainder of the soundtrack is filled out with atmospheric instrumentals by Michael Masser that revolve around the riff from “I Always Knew I Had It in Me.” Labeling the last of them “Variation on Theme” is about as on-the-nose as you can get. Varese’s 2017 reissue adds four bonus tracks, highlighted by Cassius Clay’s charming, melody-challenged cover of “Stand By Me” and the original recitation “I Am the Greatest.” The remaining bonuses are the DJ 7” of Benson’s “The Greatest Love of All” and a disco 12” of “Ali Bombaye.” This is a nice upgrade to a period piece. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Muhammad Ali’s Home Page

Mark McKinney: World in Between

February 18th, 2017

Texas troubadour’s fifth album

Austin-based Mark McKinney inhabits that special nation of singer-songwriter that is the Texas music circuit. Though he’s gained recognition outside the Lonestar State, notably through song placements with NASCAR and ESPN, it’s his home state that supports the bulk of his extensive annual touring. His fifth solo album (he’d previously led the roots-rock band Cosmic Cowboy) will remind you of circuit stalwarts like Jack Ingram, Pat Green, Cory Morrow, Charlie Robison and Kevin Fowler, the latter of whom McKinney’s written for. Produced with his brother Eric, the record is both rootsy – acoustic, electric and slide guitars, mandolin, fiddle, harmonica and drums – and modern at the same time. It’s a clever sound that could hook Nashville fans without alienating the Austin base.

McKinney opens with a bluesy version of the Cosmic Cowboys’ “90 Miles,” the lament of a lifer musician who’s always got another gig just down the road. It’s not a revelatory sentiment, but one that rings with an authentically weary smile, and he celebrates the road in “Stories,” highlighting its personal impact and lingering memories. The music slips into strutting modern country anthems in a few places, but establishes real intimacy through the emotional strength of “Sunshine.” There are love songs and broke-up songs, and the romantic models of “Bacon & Eggs” include the unlikely duo of Bonnie and Clyde (though, to be fair, they did stay together until the very end). No doubt these songs will play well as McKinney entertains 90 miles at a time. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Mark McKinney’s Home Page

Gerry Rafferty: The Best Of

February 18th, 2017

Rare single edits of 1978-1982 hits

When you first pop this disc in the player, you’re braced to hear Raphael Ravenscroft’s iconic late-70s saxophone riff on “Baker Street.” But before you get that, you’re treated to Rafferty’s other Top 10 hit, Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You.” Rafferty had actually exited the group by the time the single made its way up the charts, leaving co-founder Joe Egan to mime the video. The song’s breakthrough persuaded Rafferty to return, and the band carried on into 1975 without further commercial gains. More importantly, when the band broke up, amid disagreements, managerial problems and lawsuits, Rafferty was left to ponder his future.

Sidelined by legal issues, and commuting from his native Scotland to London for court dates, Rafferty stayed in a friend’s Baker Street flat, mulling over his stalled career, and, as detailed in the last verse of “Baker Street,” eventually finding resolution and an optimistic return to work. Though he’d released the solo album Can I Have My Money Back? in 1971, his solo career really began with 1978’s City to City, topping the U.S. album chart and garnering a platinum record. The album’s hits included “Baker Street,” as well as “Right Down the Line” and “Home and Dry,” but despite the commercial breakthrough and continued artistic vitality, Rafferty’s success, particularly in the U.S., quickly decayed.

His second album, Night Owl, stalled at #29 and its singles, “Days Gone Down” and “Get it Right Next Time,” grazed the Top 20. His third album, Snakes and Ladders, was the last to crack the U.S. charts, and its sole U.S. charting single, “The Royal Mile (Sweet Darlin’),” missed the Top 40. His last album for Liberty/UA, Sleepwalking, is represented here by the UK single of the title track. Varese’s 16-track set covers Rafferty’s commercial years of 1978-82, featuring six U.S. and two UK singles in their original edits, along with non-charting singles, B-sides and album tracks. The eight-page booklet includes photos, label and picture sleeve reproductions, and liner notes by Larry R. Watts. This is a good introduction to Rafferty’s hits, and those who’ve already bought the albums will enjoy the rare single edits. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Gerry Rafferty’s Home Page

Austin Hanks: Alabastard

February 14th, 2017

A country-rock album with a soul singer’s heart

Austin Hanks may set his music in country, rock and blues settings, but at root, he’s a soul singer. After leaving his native Alabama, he had a cup of coffee in Nashville before a writing deal with EMI turned him into a Los Angeles-based expat. But he brought his Southern roots with him, and they shine brightly in the blue soul of the opening “Toughest Part of Me,” as Hanks realizes that scar tissue can patch a broken heart. He lays himself on the line with a cover of James Brown’s “I’ll Go Crazy,” but he’s more regularly prone to seeking second chances, doubling back on “Delta Torches” and grasping for emotional ignition on the Springsteen-ish “Worth the Fight.”

Hanks doesn’t wallow, but neither does he make starry-eyed pronouncements. There’s self awareness, and perhaps even optimism in “Rise Above” and the blues-rock “Savior Self,” but Hanks is pushing his way forward rather than celebrating his arrived. The album’s title, which abbreviates “Alabama Bastard,” hints at the in-between place of cultural emigrants and the outsider emotion it creates. He turns nostalgic for “Alive & Untied,” with a warm organ intro that develops into a full-blown Muscle Shoals sound, and though there’s a party vibe to the New Orleans roll of “Lakeside,” there’s more here than pickup trucks and beer. Fans of ZZ Top, the Allmans, Skynyrd and Sons of Anarchy (for which Hanks penned “Sucker Punch”) will enjoy this one. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Austin Hanks’ Home Page

Joe Goodkin: Record of Loss

February 12th, 2017

A singer-songwriter’s contemplative view of loss

On the second of a planned three-EP series, singer-songwriter Joe Goodkin continues to mine a deep streak of observation and self awareness. The first EP, Record of Life essayed a catalog of loss, regret and memory, rendered in detailed, personal images. This follow-up segues with the emotional fallout of its predecessor, recounting his losses nightly on tour, suffering additional bereavement, and finding that success doesn’t fully fill those voids. This time out he continues to sing of those he’s seen suffer and those he’s lost, but framed as celebrations of the remarkable and eulogies of the beloved, rather than lamentations of difficulty or loss. He’s mindful to appreciate what’s in front of him, rather than lament what’s gone, and to use each loss as an opportunity to refocus on what remains. The powerful closer, “For the Loss,” provides a rarely heard man’s viewpoint on the emotional consequences of abortion. Goodkin’s production, using only a 1963 Gibson ES-125T for backing, is remarkable as well. His multi-miked and overdubbed guitar creates a multitude of sounds, and vocals mixed from close-in and room mics build atmosphere around his singular voice. The third EP in the project, Record of Love, is due Summer 2017, but the first two parts stand strongly on their own and pair nicely as two-thirds of the full project. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Joe Goodkin’s Home Page

Art Pepper: Presents West Coast Sessions! Volume 2 – Pete Jolly

February 3rd, 2017

1980 Japan-only release reissued with bonuses

After a gap in the first half of the ‘70s, alto saxophonist and West Coast Jazz icon Art Pepper returned to recording. By decade’s end he was under contract with Galaxy, and when a small Japanese label came calling, he had to get creative. Unable to record for Atlas as a group leader, he picked session leaders and took credit only as a sideman. The albums were issued only in Japan, previously anthologized in the box set Hollywood All-Star Sessions, and now being reissued individually by Omnivore with bonus tracks. The first volume, a double-CD headlined by Sonny Stitt, is joined by this volume headlined by pianist Pete Jolly. Originally issued as Strike Up the Band, the original seven tracks are augmented by two bonus takes of Pepper’s original “Y.I. Blues,” one previously unreleased.

Recorded in February 1980 at Sage & Sound in Hollywood, Pepper and Jolly were joined by bassist Rob Magnusson and drummer Roy McCurdy as they worked through a selection of standards from the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s. Pepper had played all of these tunes in the 1950s, so the value here is what this quartet could do with them on these dates. Pepper and Jolly are melodic and lively as they fly through an up-tempo take on the Gershwins’ “Strike Up the Band,” and McCurdy is crisp as he pushes with his cymbals and fills with his full kit. Pepper’s stretches out on the ballad “You Go to My Head,” bridging the lyrical sections with quick runs and giving way for a reflective solo by Jolly. Pepper and Jolly get more conversational on the chestnut “I Surrender Dear,” with Magnusson and McCurdy vamping the ending.

The album’s lone original is Pepper’s “Y.I. Blues” (named after the session’s producer) a piece that inspires Pepper and Jolly, and gives the rhythm section an opportunity to groove with snappy fills from McCurdy and a short solo for Magnusson. Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” opens with a Latin beat, and though the backing starts out supper-club subdued, Pepper gets more passionate and the rhythm section swings as the song plays out. Omnivore’s reissue includes a 12-page booklet of photos, credits, studio diagrams and detailed liner notes from Pepper’s widow, Laurie. Laurie Pepper has kept the flame of Pepper’s music alive through biography, blog and archival releases, and now with this series of reissues, an important chapter in Pepper’s career is revived. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Art Pepper on Bandcamp and CD Baby