Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Remembering the Late John Fred

(As published in the May 4, 2005, edition of the Times of Acadiana...)

When John Fred (Gourrier) died from kidney-transplant complications on April 15 at the age of 63, a chapter in the history of Louisiana blue-eyed soul and frat-rock R&B officially came to an end.

I say “officially” because the John Fred chapter had, for all practical purposes, come to an end 35 years earlier, when the momentum generated by the Baton Rouge native’s “Judy in Disguise (with Glasses),” a chart-topping novelty song in 1968, finally ran out.  A catchy and goofy spoof of the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “Judy in Disguise” made Fred a star and a one-hit wonder simultaneously.  And, as all one-hit wonders know, their only options are to accept their 15 minutes of fame or to attempt to recreate their one hit in various, um, disguises.

So it was that just one year, when Fred signed with MCA, his first single was “Silly Sarah Carter (Eating on a Moonpie).”  With its snappy, horn-punctuated tempo and titular heroine (with ellipsis), it was obviously “Judy in Disguise” in disguise.  And, as would later be the case with Walter Murphy’s follow-up to “A Fifth of Beethoven” (“Flight ’76”) and Rick Dees’ follow-up to “Disco Duck” (“Disco Gorilla”), “Silly Sarah Carter” bombed.  By 1971, Fred and his band, originally the Playboys—and later “His Playboy Band”—were kaput.

About the name game: Although Fred had christened his group the Playboys as early as 1956 (after Hugh Hefner’s then ground-breaking magazine), he eventually changed the name to avoid being confused (or perhaps litigiously involved) with the more popular but by no means more talented Gary Lewis & the Playboys.

In recent years, archival and new John Fred recordings have appeared under both names.  In 1991, Shreveport’s Paula Records issued a 26-track best-of titled The History of John Fred & the Playboys.  Then, in 2001, Varese Records issued the 17-track Absolutely the Best of John Fred & His Playboy Band.  (Get the Paula disc if you can; although both compilations contain “Judy in Disguise” and the best song Fred ever recorded, the reflective “Sometimes You Just Can’t Win,” only the Paula disc cottons “Mary Jane,” a hazily psychedelic tribute to a certain herbal intoxicant that ranks alongside Neil Diamond’s “Pot Smoker’s Song.”)  In between, Club Louisianne issued some “unreleased masters” credited simply to “John Fred.”

As if to set the record straight, Fred released Somebody’s Knockin’ (TJ Records) in 2002, an album of all-new recordings credited to John Fred & His Playboy Band.  The only problem was that printed atop the stationery that he was using at the time was “John Fred & the Playboys.”  I know because with my review copy I received a handwritten note that read, “Would you please review my CD in your newspaper?  Thank you.  John Fred.”

The aforementioned Club Louisianne album, by the way, was titled I Miss Y’all.

Now it’s our turn.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Henry Gray: Still Howlin'

(As published in the August 4, 1999, issue of the Times of Acadiana...)

A perusal of any ticket-selling website shows that there’s no shortage of musical living legends on the road these days.  Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are playing together for the first time in more than a decade, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon for the first time ever.  The problem is that anyone who wants good seats at both shows will spend a total of $190.50—$381.00 if he brings the wife, $827.25 if he adds the two-point-five kids.

The good news for people with both a mortgage and a taste for legendary concerts is that the Summer Cultural Arts Series by Henry Gray at the Lafayette Middle School auditorium this Sunday afternoon costs absolutely nothing.  Backed by Andy Cornett (bass), Brian Bruce (harmonica), and Earl Christopher (drums)—a.k.a. the Cats—the 74-year-old Baton Rouge pianist and veteran of the Howlin’ Wolf group will roll out an hour-long set of the music that’s made him one of the world’s most in-demand blues musicians.

Henry Gray was born on January 19, 1925, in Kenner and grew up in the town of Alsen.  By the age of eight, he’d taught himself piano, and by 16 he’d begun playing with a band in a local club.  Although he joined the Army two years later and eventually saw combat in the Philippines during the last years of World War II, he continued to hone his musical skills in USO shows by playing rock-and-roll and rhythm-and-blues.  “The same thing I play now,” he recalls.  “They love it today, and they loved it then.”

Upon his discharge, Gray moved north to Chicago and fell in with a burgeoning electric-blues scene that would transform rock-and-roll 20 years later when approximated by the Rolling Stones.  By the time he joined the Howlin’ Wolf band in 1956, he’d spent a decade making a name for himself both as a session musician (having recorded with Jimmy Rogers, Jimmy Reed, Junior Wells, and Willie Dixon) and as a live performer (with Bo Diddley and Morris Pejoe).  When he left Howlin’ Wolf in 1968, he’d etched his name in blues history.  Since then he has maintained that place with a performance schedule that would exhaust many a younger man.

It was at a club performance  in Baton Rouge during the early 1970s that Gray first met Andy Cornett, the bassist and harmonica player who would eventually become his manager.  “There were people like Tabby Thomas, Guitar Kelly, Silas Hogan, and Moses ‘Whispering’ Smith,” says Cornett, 49, who now resides in Lafayette.  “Henry was playing piano, and he was amazing.  Between sets we were both meandering in the crowd, and I kept thinking, ‘I ought to go up to him and tell him I really like his stuff.’”

Suddenly, Cornett bumped into someone, turned around, and found himself face-to-face with the great man himself.  After a brief exchange—in which Cornett admitted that he played harmonica and guitar “a little bit”—Gray offered a hearty “Keep it up, man, keep it up” and shuffled off.

A year later, the two met again.  “They had him playing at LSU in the Student Union building for Black History Month,” says Cornett, “and he was ripping it, man!  He took a break, and I went up to him.  I said, ‘How are you doing, Mr. Gray?  You remember me?’  He said, ‘Yeah, I remember you.  You playin’ harmonica still?’  I went, ‘Damn!  That was pretty amazing to me.”  Cornett, harmonica in hand, asked to sit in, and Gray said O.K.  “We locked in,” says Cornett, “and we really ain’t looked back since.”

The Gray-Cornett combination has proved mutually rewarding.  Cornett has had the pleasure of performing with his hero, and Gray has benefitted from Cornett’s organizational skills.  Cornett not only set up a steady backing band for Gray, who dislikes performing solo, but also has kept Gray in the public eye by scheduling tours and recording sessions like the one in 1988 that resulted in the Blind Pig album Lucky Man.

Lucky Man elevated Gray’s public profile, but those closest to him think that it fell short of doing Gray justice.  “I don’t think it was a well-produced record,” says the veteran British slide guitarist Martin Simpson, who has performed with Gray off and on for the last 10 years.  “I don’t think it represented what Henry really is.”  Brian Bruce remembers that he and Cornett had sent Blind Pig a tape of Gray with the Cats but that the label’s producers thought that they could get a better record out of him themselves.  “They did their take on Henry,” says Bruce, “but it wasn’t Henry in his element.”

Gray’s element, according to practically everyone who has seen him perform, is the stage.  To this end, Cornett organized a Henry Gray show last March at the Grant Street Dancehall that not only brought Gray together with Martin Simpson again but that also brought Simpson together with his Acadiana slide-guitar counterpart Sonny Landreth.  One result was Live: The Blues Won’t Let Me Take My Rest, a 15-song, 73-minute CD of the evening’s highlights with which Cornett hopes to attract the attention of a record company capable of promoting it as the major blues release that it is.  (Those disinclined to wait can order it at

“We spent about three years trying to put this together,” says Bruce.  “We have a number of different recordings from different clubs, but there was always something that didn’t work.  This one made it.”

“We had been talking for a long time about doing something that we had complete control over,” adds Cornett, “and it worked.  The night was amazing, and we were able to capture it.”

Cornett and Bruce are not alone in their enthusiasm.  The album has yet to be officially released, and already the blurbs are piling up.  “His piano and voice are in top form as he boogies, shuffles, strides, and plays straight 12-to-the-bar blues,” says the Louisiana Music Factory’s Jerry Brock.  “This new CD is delightful and is a great addition to my collection,” says the Saphire Uppity Blues Women’s Ann Rabson.  “These are raw, deep blues, musically unpredictable and unfettered.”

Gray's own assessment of the album is terser.  “It’s all right,” he says.  “It came out pretty good.”

It’s a hot July afternoon, and Gray is relaxing in the living room of his Baton Rouge home after a month-long European tour.  His popularity abroad, which is considerable, has a downside.  While it enables him to make more money in a month than most other 74-year-old men make in a year, it also requires him to submit to rigors that musicians half his age have been known to find taxing.  “They want me to go back to Europe in September,” he says, “but I don’t think I’m going.  I’m tired.”

According to Gray, the most tiring parts of a tour are the amount of sleep that he gets (“hardly none”) and the riding (“Travel all day and play half of the night”).  Then there’s the availability, or the lack thereof, of sidemen.  On this latest tour, he was paired with the Marva Wright band for three weeks, but he also did a week of solo gigs.  “I’ve played by myself all over the world,” he says, “but that don’t mean to say I like it.  By yourself is a killer.  I like to be with somebody.”

Last July Gray made headlines by performing for Mick Jagger.  It seems that the head Rolling Stone had requested the presence of the Legends of Chicago Blues—an all-star ensemble featuring Gray and other original members of the Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Little Walter bands—at his 55th birthday party, and the American Legends concert promoters were happy to oblige.

In addition to Gray, the Legends of Chicago Blues include Dave Myers and Little Smokey Smothers (guitars), Abb Locke (sax), Mojo Buford (harmonica), Bob Stoger (bass), and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith (drums).  Together they attended the Rolling Stones concert at the Stade de France in Paris before proceeding to the hotel at which Jagger’s private birthday party was held.  That the Stones had made their initial splash by covering songs such as Howlin' Wolf’s “Little Red Rooster” and Muddy Waters’ “I Just Want to Make Love to You” made the hiring of the Legends seem almost like a belated thank-you gift.

At one point, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, and members of the Stones’ extended stage band joined Gray and company for an impromptu jam, after which Richards was heard to exclaim, “This band is the shit!”  Coming from Richards, such praise was high, probably in more ways than one.

As with most aspects of his career, Gray has little to say about partying with Jagger.  (Q: [Coaxingly] “That must have been some party.”  A: “It was.”)  When pressed for reminiscences, anecdotes—anything—from his dozen years with Howlin’ Wolf and his 20 years as a member of Chicago’s blues elite, all he’ll say is “I don’t know stories.  They was all nice to me.”

The one subject he will discuss is money.  Why did he leave Morris Pejoe in 1956 for Howlin’ Wolf?  “More money.  I wanted money.  I needed money.  So I did it.”  Why, although his résumé includes playing spirituals in a Chicago church, does he avoid playing gospel music in his shows?  “I don’t get paid for that.  I’ve never made a dime on gospel.  I get paid for playing the blues.  I’ve got to eat too.”  What advice does he have for young musicians?  “I would tell them to listen to the blues if they want to make some money.  There’s nobody that wants to listen to rock-and-roll but teenagers.  Old folks, they don’t want to hear rock-and-roll.  They want the blues.”

Gray is wrong about a couple of things.  First, there is money in rock-and-roll.  (Just ask Ticketmaster employees about Bruce $pringsteen and Paul $imon.)  Second, old folks aren’t the only ones who like their blues Gray.  Tab Benoit’s duet with Gray on “Too Many Dirty Dishes” is a high point of Benoit’s 1997 live album Swampland Jam.  And Kenny Neal, the son of Gray’s fellow Baton Rouge bluesman and occasional touring partner Raful Neal, sings a killer lead vocal on “The Red Rooster,” a track from Telarc’s Grammy-nominated Tribute to Howlin’ Wolf, on which Gray performs. 

But Gray is right about a bluesman’s needing to watch his wallet.  “These old guys have seen too much,” says Cornett, who once had to tell a record company that Gray was blowing off a scheduled recording session in favor of a European tour that paid better.  “You know, too many promises, not enough money.”

Sit with Henry Gray long enough, however, and something besides the love of money glints from beneath the cracks in his facade.  Labeling that something can be difficult, but it’s at the root of what makes musicians treasure the memory of their first encounter with him.  “At the end of the very first song that we played together,” Martin Simpson recalls, “he looked at me and said, ‘Don’t you ever get above me, boy!’”  The Gueydan guitarist Bobby Broussard recalls that he “had a really screwed-up guitar” when he first performed with Gray.  “It sounded terrible when I went to play some slide.  But he liked me and accepted me, which I thought was amazing.”

Perhaps when it comes to identifying his true motivation, Gray himself says it best: “I get paid for the blues, I love the blues, and I play the blues.  Now that makes sense to me!” 

Hadley Castille: Hanging with Hadley

(Originally published in the June 20 and the June 27, 2001, issue of the Times of Acadiana) 

Hadley Castille vividly remembers the day in 1992 that he found himself in a New Orleans recording studio, preparing to add his distinctive Cajun fiddling to “Big Fran’s Baby,” a song composed by Clint Eastwood for the soundtrack of his film A Perfect World.  “We were about to record,” Castille recalls, “and the producer said, ‘Mr. Castille, Mr. Eastwood wants to add a bagpipe to this song.’  Well, I was feeling a little ornery that day, so I said, ‘A bagpipe?  Not in my music.’”

Castille stood and turned to leave, only to find himself face-to-face with the New Orleans saxophonist James Rivers, a large, imposing man made larger and more imposing on this day by the bagpipe that he was wearing.  “I turned back around,” he remembers, “and said, ‘Well, maybe just this once.’”

Castille laughs heartily but still maintains that the Scottish instrument was an odd choice for what was supposed to be a Cajun song heard on Texas radio in 1963.  To set the record straight, he re-recorded the song—sans bagpipe—on his 1995 album, La Musique de les Castilles: The Third Generation (Swallow). 

His latest album, Quarante Acres et Deux Mulés/Forty Acres and Two Mules (Master-Trak) is likewise 100% bagpipe free.  It’s also as excellent an hour of music as Castille has ever fit on one album.  Subtitled Cajun Swing, Two-Steps, Waltzes, Blues and Ballads, it distinguishes itself from the majority of Cajun discs, contemporary and otherwise, in both its stylistic variety and its quotient of original material.  Of the 15 songs, 11 were composed or co-composed by Castille and his son Blake, and the four that weren’t range imaginatively from golden-age classics (Harry Choates’ “La Popuet Elastique” and “La Valse du Port Arthur,” Iry LeJeune’s “Grand Nuit”) to modern-day zydeco (Nathan & the Zydeco Cha-Chas’ “Everything on a Hog Is Good”).

Engineered by Castille’s longtime technician of choice Mark Miller and embellished with contributions from David Egan, Sam Broussard, Pee Wee Whitewing, and Lee Benoit, the Quarante Acres et Deux Mulés swings with an ease, elegance, grace, and beauty that justify the high esteem with which Castille and his Sharecroppers Cajun Band have been held both locally and abroad for more than 20 years.  Furthermore, originals such as “Radio à Batterie” (which goes “The Western Swing Bob Wills would play / That is why…my Cajun fiddle / swings that way”) and “Helaire Carrier” (about the notorious real-life “bandit of St. Landry Parish”) suggest that, his fiddling skills notwithstanding, Castille’s true gift might be his translation of Cajun history into that most durable of folklore: the story-song—or ballad.

“When I went to Canada in the late ’70s,” Castille says, “it just awakened me to the idea that this was something special.  I thought, ‘If it means that much to them, there’s something about this music and culture that we need to preserve.’”

Born in Leonville in 1933, Castille had been performing Cajun music since his Army days during the Korean war.  But he didn’t fully grasp the importance of being musically earnest until 1979, when the warm reception that greeted him and his fiddle at a Canadian music festival convinced him that there was an audience for his unique blend of Cajun music and Western swing.

To those who’ve followed Castille since, the excellence of Quarante Acres et Deux Mulés will come as no surprise.  But amid the highly accomplished playing, arranging, and storytelling, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Castille is also one of Cajun music’s finest singers: He’s as unlikely to strain after high notes or to sing through his nose as he is to accept too much credit for his vocal prowess.  “In the old days,” he explains, “when there was no amplification, Cajun singers would sing in high G to project, to get through the noise.  Today you can sing where you feel good and work on your tone rather than try to reach high notes and stay on pitch.”

You can also, it seems, broaden your audience that way.  “When I first started playing Canada,” Castille recalls, “people would tell me—in French!—‘We like your music, but we don’t understand what you’re singing about.’  So I began to speak more distinctly to them, and I got to thinking that maybe I should do the same thing as a singer, to try to be clearer with the pronunciation.  Now even the locals tell me, ‘We understand what you’re saying.’”

Castille’s desire to make himself understood abroad was also behind his decision to begin playing blue, Louisiana-shaped violins.  “We were playing at a fiddle convention in St. Boniface, and after we got through, we went and met some of the folk.  A little lady came up to me and said, in French, ‘Mr. Castille, this Cajun country of Louisiana, where is that?  Is that close to Nova Scotia?’”

Castille decided that playing a violin in the shape of his home state was preferable to lugging around an atlas and eventually had two such instruments made—the “backwards” one that he’s shown playing on the cover of his 1985 album Going Back to Louisiana/Je suis retourné à la Louisiane (“I thought that the toe of the state would get in my way,” he says, “but it didn’t”) and the “correct” one that he’s holding on the back cover of 1989’s Along the Bayou Teche.

Today, due in large part to Castille’s efforts and those of other gifted Acadiana musicians who think globally while acting locally, the location of “this Cajun country of Louisiana” is less of a mystery than ever.  “I realized a long time ago,” Castille reflects, “that there was something about the Cajun fiddle that catches people’s ears, that makes them feel good.

“And the more I studied it,” he says, “the more I came to understand what it takes to get that sound.”

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2014: A-B

Sheezus (Parlophone/WEA)

Allen’s her own woman and all, but she has precursors: Julie Brown (who she’s as funny as), Tracey Ullman (who she sings as well as), Millie Jackson (who she’s working on being as dirty as) and chick flicks, for which this album, like her other two, could be a soundtrack if R-rated chick flicks were the norm.  All but foregoing timelessness and universality, she sets herself the challenge of remaining up-to-the-minute and more or less succeeds, tweaking Kanye West in the title cut, bitching up “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” and mentioning Instagram and Wordpress.  The catchiest song is the Abba-gone-zydeco “As Long As I Got You.”  The sincerest is “Insincerely Yours,” which goes “Let’s be clear, I’m here ... to make money.”

The Rite of Spring (Sony Masterworks)

Why not a top-flight jazz trio’s interpretation of the twentieth century’s most inflammatory work, what with jazz’s comprising the twentieth century’s most inflammatory musical innovations and all?  Well, there are no dancers (Le Sacre du printemps was a ballet after all), and no jazz trio, no matter how gifted or well intentioned, can evoke riotous pagan spirits as convincingly as an orchestra.  In short, there’s no way that this skeletal, one-dimensional recreation of a fully fleshed three-dimensional experience won’t have twenty-first-century ticket buyers feeling as if they’ve been had.  Still, the sole surviving dimension hath charms to roil the savage breast.  And there’s something to be said for leaving something to the imagination--and for giving the drummer David King room to strut his overcompensatory stuff.

3rd (YepRoc)

3rd improves this indie supergroup’s already impressive slugging percentage.  Coming in for admiration and-or sympathy this time are Luis Tiant, Dale Murphy, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Larry Yount, and every beloved player with a lousy personality (“They Played Baseball”).  Coming in for disapprobation and-or sympathy: Lenny Dykstra, Alex Rodriguez, and Pascual Pérez.  The music ranges from folk-rock to power-pop, the singing from Scott McCaughey’s and Steve Wynn’s sports-nerd whimsy to Linda Pitmon’s ball-girl charm.  Best of all is the Dock Ellis tribute “The Day Dock Went Hunting Heads,” which recounts the time that Ellis jump-started the slumping Bucs by hitting every Cincinnati Red batter that he faced before getting pulled in the first inning.  Thirty years later, the incident still possesses inspirational properties.

Underneath the Rainbow (Vice)

Who’d’ve thunk that an impassioned Atlanta combo would’ve been just the thing to drag the Black Keys’ preoccupation with anachronistic garage rock kicking and screaming into the twenty tens?  And who’d’ve thunk that, having succeeded, the combo’s results would sound so unexceptional?  “Don’t Die” is good advice, of course, but Chuck Berry, Alice Cooper, Brownsville Station, and Pink Floyd have done better schoolhouse rock than “Waiting.”  As the soundtrack to a water-treading refusal to mature, most of this album passes muster.  None of its sentient fans, however, will be rocking or rolling to it in five years.  Maybe the jazz-fusionists, classical revisionists, every talented musician who’s not Jack White, and Yogi Berra are correct: The past ain’t what it used to be, and, what’s more, it never was.

Talkin’ Christmas! (Sony Masterworks)

Clarence Fountain is still MIA, Paul Beasley’s falsetto is still too squeaky, and Taj Mahal is content mainly to pick and strum instruments.  But someone (Ricke McKinnie?  Ben Moore?  surely not the nonagenarian and sole original member Jimmy Carter?) is doing a pretty-good Fountain impersonation, Beasley’s solo mic time is limited, and Mahal’s deep black-diaspora roots are a perfect complement to the more circumscribed but equally deep roots of the Boys.  Of the half-dozen originals, “There’s a Reason We Call It Christmas” has the makings of a bonafide holiday standard, and “What Can I Do?” could’ve improved Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy.   As for the gospel-rocking album-opener, “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” it’s so radically re-arranged that you’d swear it was an original too.

Flesh + Blood (Vanguard)

Don’t let the “jam band” tag that’s attached itself to this Australian band put you off.  Although the songs tend toward the five-minute mark, there’s a concision to the execution that brings the riffs to the fore, making them and the lyrics (not superfluous), the singing (adequate at worst, sing-a-long-ish at best), and the titles to which they’re attached (“Devil Woman” is not a Cliff Richard cover) feel rootsy without giving off excessive patchouli whiffs.  “Livin’ in the City” even manages to bring Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” overground while honoring the titular echoes of Stevie Wonder.  Live, of course, matters might get out of hand.  Flesh + Blood, however, is a studio album.  Why, “Bullet Girl”’s parts are practically greater than its metaphysical whole.

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2014: C

Badlands (The End)

What kind of chicks are these leather-clad revivers of good-ol’ hard rock trying to seduce?  The kind who like being called “little woman,” being dragged “back to hell,” and being reminded that since those who gave them what they want find them “so fucking beautiful”, they should simply “handle it.”  And that’s just Track One (of 13).  In short, boilerplate bad-boy misogyny lives or at least refuses to go gentle into that good night.  Call it the daze of Guns ’N Roses.  No, the title cut isn’t a Springsteen cover.  (Would that it were.)  No, “Falling” isn’t a LeBlanc & Carr cover.  (Ditto.)  Only “Bruce Willis” (“I wake every morning with a feeling I’m getting too old for this shit”) justifies the effort.  (Hey, Looper wasn’t that bad.)

The Essential Eric Carmen (Sony/Legacy)

What makes this thirty-track, “essential” collection better than the eighteen-track, 1997 “definitive” one with which it shares sixteen cuts?  Not the obscurities--neither the pre-Raspberries “Get the Message” nor 2013’s “Brand New Year” goes all the way, and the studio version of “That’s Rock N’ Roll” on The Definitive is more essential than this album’s live 1976 run through.  Meanwhile, “I Wanna Hear It from Your Lips” remains vanished down the memory hole, and 1997’s not-bad I Was Born to Love You might as well never have happened.  Still, Carmen’s sixteen definitively essential/essentially definitive moments really are pretty great.  And then there’s the heretofore uncollected “Love Is All That Matters,” the most beautiful melody that Carmen ever lifted from a nineteenth-century Russian composer.

Carter Girl (Rounder)

The latest album by June Carter Cash’s daughter replants the Carter Family’s musical roots in twenty-first-century alt-country soil--seven of the dozen songs were written by the family’s paterfamilias, A.P. Carter (eight if you count “Lonesome Valley 2003,” an A.P. classic updated by Carlene and NRBQ’s Al Anderson).  Rife with gospel-music archetypes, they’ll apprise newcomers to the “first family of country music” of the fact that Christianity used to be cool.  But it’s the Carlene original, a re-recorded “Me and the Wildwood Rose,” that sets the tone: “In my Grandma's house her children would sing, / guitars a twangin' and their laughter would ring. / I was little, but I was the biggest kid. / I wanted to do what the grown-ups did.”  At fifty-eight, she finally has.

The River & the Thread (Blue Note)

In interviews, Cash has related the fascinating backstories of these eleven songs (fourteen in the deluxe version) with so much detail that they almost overshadow the songs themselves.  She also lets on as how, at fifty-eight, she now regards the music of her hit-filled youth as rather lacking in gravitas.  Well, given the alt-country heaven from which she’s channeling the meditative melodies of her maturity and the autobiographical richness of her Deep South lyrics, it’s easy to see (and hear) what she means.  Still, there are a river and a thread running through her entire impressive oeuvre, and they’re worth listening for--especially when they unite her with her daddy’s old-time religion and thus unbreak the circle bye and bye, Lord, bye and bye.

Hotel Valentine (Chimera)

Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori haven’t recorded as Cibo Matto since Bill Clinton was president.  But shuffle these ten new tracks among the nineteen on 2007’s Pom Pom: The Essential Cibo Matto and you’ll be hard pressed to tell which are which--that is, unless you’re one of the relatively (and obviously) few consumers who pushed 1999’s Stereo*Type A (the band’s previously highest-charting release) all the way to 171 on Billboard and therefore have an unfair advantage.  The partly rapped, partly sung lyrics still sound like hijacked playground chants, and the largely electronic, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink instrumentation still sounds like pop art for pop art’s sake.  Only the minimalistic (and maybe racist) “Housekeeping” justifies the formula--hence (no doubt) Hotel Valentine’s debuting at 168.

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2014: D-F

Ultraviolence (Universal)

Well, whaddaya know?  The pre-fab tabular rasa of Born to Die is a real human being after all--one capable of feeling used and abused by the Industry that she strove so long to be a vital part of and of hating herself for having gone along for the ride.  Not for nothing did she light up Baz Luhrmann’s soundtrack for The Great Gatsby.  In the chain-smoking interviews that she has given to promote this follow-up to her overhyped debut, she expresses the desire to die young and beautiful.  This album explains why, in grittier verbal detail and in scarier soundscapes than you might want to know.  It’s really too bad that Lou Reed died on the day of his scheduled collaboration with her.  Edie Sedgwick lives!

Allergic to Water (Righteous Babe)

Unless you belong to the politically correct choir to which DiFranco has long preached, she’ll still strike you as somewhat obnoxious—the atheistic equivalent, say, of a (talented) contemporary Christian musician.  But she’s less obnoxious than she used to be, maybe because, in an irony worthy of Oedipus, she finds herself, as a married mother of two, face to face with the very inevitabilities from which she once fled.  A maturity as musical as it is verbal is one of them—her folk-jazz ferment has never sounded more organic.  A sense of humor is another.  Her humble 1999 declaration that she wasn’t “angry anymore” was just a straight-up confession.  Her bemused 2014 realization that she’s “happy all the time” grounds an entire song’s worth of ace atheistic jokes. 

Stupid Things (self-released)

At a time during which the Frozen soundtrack is the most popular album in the world, these ten quirky coming-of-age songs are a tonic.  The bouncy piano, chipper melodies, and detailed lyrics cultivate the same feminine turf but at a deeper level, and Dooley sings almost as well as Demi Lovato, Idina Menzel, and Kristen Bell.  In fact, by singing “worse”--i.e., with less regard for the niceties of professionalistic perfectionism--she could be said to sing better.  If only she weren’t so nasal.  Her piercing tone and helium-huffing range do her occasionally overripe cuteness no favors (“Watching Goonies at My House”).  But when she eases up and meets her sentiments halfway, she sounds as if she could give one-woman, off-Broadway shows a good name.

Holiday (Legacy)

On 2013’s Now, Then & Forever, Philip Bailey, Ralph Johnson, and Verdine White strove mighty mightily to recapture EWF’s peak-period glory but failed.  With Holiday they succeed.  (Well, Bailey and White anyway.  Johnson is absent from the credits.)  Granted, given the subject, they didn’t need new material—the “September” rewrite “December” aside, “Happy Seasons” is the only original.  But, lest the project feel perfunctory, they did need EWF-worthy arrangements.  And to that challenge they’ve risen.  It’s not so much that they imbue “Joy to the World,” “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” and “The Drummer Boy,” et. al. with funky pizzazz as that they make doing so sound as natural as trimming a tree.  And the shining star at the top?  An irresistible rendition of the Japanese favorite “Snow.”

Boy Cried Wolf (BMG)

These pop-rocking Brits scored four Top-10 U.K. hits in 2006 and 2007, so they could be forgiven wanting to milk their formula.  Instead, they’re deepening and broadening it until the occasional sophistication of their gentle hooks and introspective lyrics becomes a pleasure in itself.  And although the softness at their sound’s core (Ciaran Jeremiah’s piano, Dan Gillespie Sells’ high-pitched, McCartney-esque voice) still makes the sentiments sound treaclier and callower than they are, often enough they just seem carefully thought out.  “The Gloves Are Off,” for instance, neatly balances the literal and figurative similarities between romance and boxing.  And the tolerance anthem “When I Look Above”--the only cut in which Sells’ homosexuality matters at all--seems more like self-examination than a plea for special treatment.

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2014: G-K

50 St. Catherine’s Drive (Rhino)

No, you’re not foolish to wonder whether this posthumous solo opus from the Bee Gee with the weirdest voice could possibly be any good.  Yet “any good” it is, and had it been trimmed to its 10 best tracks instead of padded out to 16, it would’ve been even better.  Hooks and baroque-pop filigrees abound, effectively neutralizing Gibb's apparent pride in never having met a cliché that he didn’t like.  The Bee Gees oldie “I Am the World” gets redone to stunning effect.  “Days of Wine And Roses” doesn’t embarrass itself by sharing a title with a Henry Mancini-Johnny Mercer classic.  And the late-Aussie-DJ tribute “Alan Freeman Days” is so irresistible that opportunistic Americans would be foolish not to record a cover renamed for Casey Kasem.

Brotherhood (Alligator)

This septuagenarian trio’s soul-gospel-blues mix is as generic as ever, but the longer they stay at it, the less pejorative “generic” seems.  More than ever, in other words, they sound less like some spark-seeking soul singer’s ideal backing band (guitar, bass, drums--and they sing!) and more like a Three Dog Night for the roots crowd.  “Stayed at the Party” is nothing if not a long-overdue sequel to “Mama Told Me (Not to Come).”  Also like Three Dog Night, these guys can do small wonders with the right material: Popsy Dixon’s falsetto adds the ideal note of vulnerability betrayed to Ted Hawkins’ “I Gave Up All I Had.”  If they’d resisted bloating Brotherhood to fourteen tracks, maybe such highlights wouldn’t seem so few and far between.

Sweet Talker (Universal Republic)

“I’ma do it like it ain't been done,” declares Jessie J repeatedly at the outset, although what “it” is remains ambiguous.  If it’s, you know, “it,” then good luck with that.  If, however, it’s high-impact hip-hop R&B circa right now, then she has a chance.  She did, after all, get top billing on “Bang Bang,” the explosive single that she recorded with Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj and that’s also this album’s most combustible song.  Second-most combustible is “Masterpiece,” which doesn’t so much do it like it ain’t been done as borrow Martika’s “Toy Soldiers” hook for the refrain and use it to express this accurate review of Sweet Talker as a whole: “You haven't seen the best of me. / I'm still working on my masterpiece.” 

Lexington (Industrial Amusement)

Top--indeed only--billing though Wayne Kramer gets on this engagingly rambunctious free-jazz excursion, the erstwhile MC5 guitarist is only one of nine noisemakers who collectively go by the name of the Lexington Arts Ensemble.  And the most arresting composition, the film-noir atmospheric “13th Hour,” isn’t even rambunctious.  So an electric guitarfest Lexington is most definitely not (although the last two-and-a-half minutes of the second-most-arresting composition, “The Wayne in Spain,” come close).  A trombone, tenor sax-and-oboe, and double drummerfest with electric-guitar filigrees is more like it.  There are also two bassists (upright and electric) and a pianist (who might or might not be the organist on the shuck-and-jivey “Elvin’s Blues”).  Do the jams get kicked out?  Oh yes.

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2014: L

Runaway’s Diary (Archer)

A real-life runaway episode from LaVere’s teenage years inspired these songs, eight of which she composed or co-composed, four of which she chose (from Townes Van Zandt, Ned Miller, Mike McCarthy, and John Lennon).  The reason that they comprise her best album to date, however, has less to do with their through line than with such oddball aural touches as Sam Shoup’s mellotron and their sheer catchiness.  Consider, for instance, “Self Made Orphan.”  Its jaunty syncopation and the way that LaVere’s sleepy morning-after voice rides it would be their own rewards even if the lyrics didn’t include this concise elucidation of why people love pop music in the first place: “I daydream every song’s about me. / I daydream every song’s about you too—especially the sad ones.”

Nostalgia (Island)

Lennox is a good soul and no doubt means well, but her takes on these 12 staples of the Great American Songbook diet are rather boring.  Blame it on the Nina Simone effect—slowing songs unnecessarily down in the mistaken belief that slow equals soulful or deep.  Optimists will call the results “lush,” and they’ll have a point.  Every now and then the husky richness of Lennox’s alto voice intersects with her backing orchestra in ways that suggest new possibilities.  And the arrangements are not bereft of imagination.  But not even the audacity of placing Screamin’ Jay Hawkins alongside George Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael, and Duke Ellington will distract skeptics from wondering what a Scottish ex-Eurythmic could possibly know about what Billie Holiday knew about strange fruit circa Jim Crow.

Jetpack Soundtrack (Weathermaker)

If this Maryland-based trio/quartet (more on that confusion in a second) has never made a bad album, it has never made a great one either, but it’s getting closer all the time, and Jetpack Soundtrack is the Lionize album to get if you’re going to get just one.  Once a reggae act, the band is now a hard-rock act whose main influence would seem to be Deep Purple thanks to Chris Brooks’ answering every call of Nate Bergman’s guitar with Jon Lord-like organ.  Meanwhile, why the drummer Chase Lapp isn’t listed as a member on the band’s website is a mystery.  Without him, not even Bergman’s impassioned enunciation of lyrics giving Wolf Blitzer, Rupert Murdoch, and (especially) Alex Jones their due would feel sufficiently pounded home.

Harmony Is Real: Songs for a Happy Holiday (Vanguard)

Imagine a soft-focus Andrews Sisters-Roches hybrid plus a fourth-part harmony and the talent to assemble a dozen-song holiday album with only two standards (“Silver Bells,” “Jingle Bells”) and one carol (“Little Drummer Boy”), and you’ll have a fair idea of Eleni Mandell's, Becky Stark’s, Inara George’s, and Alex Lilly’s collective charm.  As befits their droll unsentimentality, the mood stays light and even somewhat ecumenical.  (Hanukkah gets a song all too itself.)  But “Unsentimental” plus “light” plus “ecumenical” in their case equals “buoyant” more often than not and “cute” only a little.  And, anyway, their cutest songs (the tourism-committee-worthy “Kadoka, South Dakota,” the Santa-baiting “Skip the Sugar [Good Girl], and the Beach Boys-worthy “Christmas in California”) are also their most detailed and catchy. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2014: M

Wig Out at Jagbags (Matador)

Malkmus has never sounded more word drunk or happy to be so than he does on these twelve freely associating excursions into whimsy for art’s sake.  As he sings in “Independence Street” and “The Janitor Revealed” respectively, he’s “just busy being free” (not unlike this album’s many malleable melodies) and “in a constant tizzy” (ditto).  About “Independence Street”: The guitar could pass for slow-groove Hendrix, the voice for happy-to-be-sober Alex Chilton.  Unplug ’em, and you’d have the Incredible String Band.  Ditto for “Surreal Teenagers.”  But what’s most impressive is that Malkmus and the Jicks don’t seem to be trying to achieve or to say anything particularly important, even (especially?) when they are--about outmoded music-industry paradigms, for instance (“Chartjunk”), or self-defeatingly hypocritical Christians (“Shibboleth”).

A Very Maysa Christmas (Shanachie)

Maysa Leak’s list of accomplishments includes singing backup for Stevie Wonder and lead for the British acid-jazz outfit Incognito.  But a familiarity with her résumé is no prerequisite for enjoying her ability to oversee these transformations of mostly pop favorites into tastefully sumptuous Christmas fare.  What is: a sweet tooth for every popular American black musical style short of the blues and an openness to the possibility that Chris “Big Dog” Davis is the R&B producer most capable of synthesizing those styles into a meaningful whole since Quincy Jones.  Even the not-necessarily-about-Christmas “Pray for Peace” and the token concession to hip-hop (Jigz’ brief rap on the medley of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “The Night Before Christmas”) feel as if they belong.

Hold It In (Ipecac)

The wheels turning in King Buzzo’s brain are worth attending to, but they grind rather than roll without such grease as bass, drums, and electricity.  So think of Hold It In as a reward for anyone who patiently endured the solo-acoustic This Machine Kills Artists earlier this year.  Hold It In’s first song is called “Bride of Crankenstein,” and it lives up to its title.  The second is the hooky, vocoder-sung “You Can Make Me Wait,” which Neil Young could sneak onto Trans‘s no doubt upcoming thirty-fifth-anniversary edition without anyone’s blinking.  Next comes “Brass Cupcake,” replete with intimations that welfare mothers make better lovers, and it’s hooky too.  Elsewhere it’s mainly grease for grease’s sake—except for “Piss Pisstoferson,” which also lives up to its title.

Summer Number Seventeen (Legacy)

By the time he scored with “It Was Almost like a Song” in 1977, Ronnie Milsap had pretty much become the Barry Manilow of crossover country, pushing obvious sentimental buttons with equally obvious string sections and background chorales.  But Milsap also had a big, likable voice and an inspirational backstory that inclined one toward slack cutting.  That he still has both makes this album, on which he sings his favorite oldies, a pleasure.  What makes the pleasure a guilty one is that his favorite oldies are lots of other people’s too, so obviousness does kick in--as does the realization that Milsap’s no Wilson Pickett (“Mustang Sally”) or Russell Thompkins, Jr. (“You Make Me Feel Brand New”).  Tommy Edwards, however, is right up his alley (“It’s All in the Game”).

For Pops: A Tribute to Muddy Waters (Severn)

Now officially fifty-nine or sixty, Morganfield (a.k.a. “Muddy Waters, Jr.”) is just four or five years shy of the age at which his legendary father jumpstarted the final phase of his career by recording and touring with a band that included Johnny Winter, James Cotton, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, and Pinetop Perkins.  The stunning Hard Again and some fine live performances ensued.  For obvious reasons, Mud couldn’t tap the same supporting cast to record these fourteen Muddy-identified songs.  But his harmonica-player (Wilson), his guitarists (Rusty Zinn, Billy Flynn), his pianist (Barrelhouse Chuck), his bassist (Steve Gomes), and his drummer (Rob Stupka) aren’t exactly slouches, although they could be tighter and rock harder.  As for Mud, he probably couldn’t sing more like his dad if he tried.

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2014: N-P