Archive for critic’s picks

crtic’s pick 334: eric johnson, “europe live”

Eric-Johnson-Europe-Live-300x300Eric Johnson has long been something of a musical amalgamation. Within his guitar playing, you hear the deft picking that a Nashville classicist like Chet Atkins might give a nod to, the kind of thunderous drive that brings to mind the more fusion friendly records of Jeff Beck and suggestions of blues spirits like Stevie Ray Vaughan that emanate from the same Texas base of operations as Johnson – namely, Austin.

Still, slip on Europe Live, a true sleeper of a summer concert recording, and you will discover he doesn’t really sound like anything of those giants. Instead, Johnson is as inconspicuous as he is inventive. He has long shown zero interest in the hyped-up profile of the modern day guitarslinger. Instead, Johnson remains the master of his own universe, an expanse where he can play with the fluidity of a country vet, the precision of a fusion pro and the passion of a bluesman. Now, squeeze out the ego pinned to each of those personas and add together what’s left. What you have the comprehensive drive bolstering Johnson’s playing. And on Europe Live, that playing has never sounded finer.

Witness, for instance, Zenland and its brief prelude Intro. The muscle of the medley blasts off with a crackling riff that sounds like Mark Knopfler in full Money for Nothing mode. But the tune quickly tightens around a searing guitar line likely boosted by pedal effects. It’s a bold, rockish run Johnson establishes with the lean rhythm section of drummer Wayne Salzmann and bassist Chris Maresh riding shotgun. But you also don’t appreciate how a clean a player Johnson is until he pulls back and assumes the role of rhythm player with a few efficient jabs that emphasize a surprising lightness to the trio. Such are the dynamics that make Europe Live a delight.

Some of the tunes are fairly recent, like the brief but beefy instrumental Fatdaddy, a romp that recalls Beck’s unrelenting fusion records despite the music’s initially country-esque tone. It’s a serving of great trio cunning that plays at full throttle with maximum efficiency. In under three minutes, the whole wild ride is complete.

Other works, like the Grammy winning Cliffs of Dover, are nearly 25 years old. But the way the tune coalesces out of spiraling guitar lines into a roadhouse groove sounds positively ageless.

The album’s lone excess is a fairly pedestrian drum solo from Saltzman that derails the otherwise engaging electric swing behind John Coltrane’s Mr. P.C. Outside of that, Europe Live is an unassuming summer treat – a live album by a guitarist that has long prided himself on being a studio perfectionist. Then again, the liberating feel one senses in Johnson’s playing is just a single highpoint from one of the year’s most complete and robust guitar rock adventures.

critic’s pick 331: john hiatt, ‘terms of my surrender’

JohnHiatt-TermsOfMySurrender“I guess we all have dreams floating on feathers,” remarks John Hiatt near the end of Terms of My Surrender in a song of separation titled Come Back Home. It’s a sentiment both passive and deflating, a shadow from the darker side of a songwriting psyche with a front row seat to the human condition. Color that with the low, scorched tone of his singing and the light, rustic tone of the instrumentation and you have a portrait of the 21t century Hiatt at work.

Well, you have one portrait. Hiatt may sound like he belongs to an elder school of hard knocks on Terms of My Surrender. But, as has always been the case with his recordings – especially the remarkable string of nine albums he has issued over the last 15 years – Hiatt wears the comedic mask as much as the tragic one. Two songs earlier, on Here to Stay, brittle guitars sway in bluesy simpatico preaching romantic salvation and familial faith in the face of desolation (“Even your pride is gonna leave you; my love is here to stay”). And in a wily instance of roots-rock diplomacy called Baby’s Gonna Kick, Hiatt takes a whimsical pass at domestic distrust that is revealed when the title’s full intent unfolds in the chorus (“My baby is gonna kick me out someday”).

Such are the peripheral glances of domesticity that Hiatt serves up throughout Terms Of My Surrender. The wiry, rootsy backdrops Hiatt designs with producer/guitarist Doug Lancio nicely compliment all the emotional fence-straddling, too. But even within that context, the album offers a few surprises.

When the troubled skies clear for the baby talk parlor piece Marlene, Hiatt and Lancio create a light, summery sing-a-long. Then during the title tune to Terms of My Surrender, the sound turns to slow jazz while the mood becomes whimsical enough for Hiatt to summon a truly distinctive metaphor for the lovelorn (“my heart is so heavy, like a stack of Bibles”).

Still, the sound and imagery permeating the record suggest the blues. Hiatt began leaning more prevalently in that direction with 2008’s Same Old Man. But on the new album’s most arresting tune, Face of God, Hiatt gets worldly (perhaps even otherworldly) with a brittle acoustic meditation that strives to find the balance between earthy suffering and spiritual release.

Nothin’ I Love is a more earthbound reverie with a dirty, dirty, dirty guitar riff and a sense of playful confession fit for a priest (“I keep-a slink-slack-slidin’ down a slippery slope”).

Ever since Bring the Family redefined his career over 25 years ago, Hiatt has sounded remarkably at home in the well worn skin he calls home. While the stories on Terms of My Surrender aren’t autobiographical, they are told with enough crusty, curmudgeon-ly zeal to make Hiatt the master of all the bliss and wreckage before him.

critic’s pick 329: bobby hutcherson, david sanborn and joey defrancesco, ‘enjoy the view’ and bobby hutcherson, ‘total eclipse’

enjoy the viewThe recordings vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson cut for Blue Note play out like a jazz encyclopedia. He relished the hard bop of the label’s ‘50s and ‘60s heyday but eventually experimented with post-bop, free-jazz and, increasingly, contemporary grooves of the late ‘60s up through 1977 when he defected from the label.

This summer, Hutcherson is back with Blue Note for recordings representing two different eras. The first is Enjoy the View, a new collaborative record cut with saxophone star David Sanborn and organist/trumpeter Joey DeFrancesco with strong support from drummer Billy Hart. The other is a vinyl-only reissue of the 1968 album Total Eclipse made at the height of Hutcherson’s post-bop period.

The near-simultaneous release of both recordings is part of a celebration honoring the Blue Note’s 75th anniversary. That makes the label two years older than Hutcherson himself.

Hutcherson has formed a number of strong saxophone alliances through the years. While the one with Sanborn is new, the two create a cool, immediate simpatico over the loose groove Hart designs on Delia (a Sanborn composition from 2003). The relationship between the vibraphonist and DeFrancesco is equally tasteful (the two were bandmates for roughly a decade), as evident by the pair’s calm, conversational turns on Don Is, a new DeFrancesco tune named after current Blue Note chieftain Don Was.

It should be noted that Sanborn, who has long ties to the smooth jazz world, checks his slicker profile at the door on Enjoy the View. For Hey Harold, a 1971 tune Hutcherson initially cut with tenor sax great Harold Land, Sanborn’s playing reflects a soulful immediacy that has always been on display in performance but appears less frequently in his recorded work.

total eclipseThe late Land lives again on the reissue of Total Eclipse. The recording was the first collaboration between the saxophonist and Hutcherson, who was in a period of considerable artistic transition at the time of these sessions.

While the opening Herzog is full of the swift, agile bop that defined his classic albums from earlier in the decade, the title tune is a luxurious but substantial post-bop work distinguished by two elegant solos presented one after the other by Land and Hutcherson with a young Chick Corea offering a third that is full of stoic grace.

Pompian, which places Land on flute and Hutcherson briefly on marimba, flirts with waltz patterns and subsequent dissonance but also hints at the more modern turns and exchanges the two would embark on in the future (especially on 1970’s exquisite San Francisco, a record that screams for a reissue).

Here, though, Total Eclipse becomes a beautiful though restless portrait of a young jazz spirit that shines with mature contentment on Enjoy the View.

critic’s picks 328: the led zeppelin reissues

ledzeppelinRecommending a listen to the new reissues of Led Zeppelin’s first three albums is like endorsing a look at a restored Picasso. The art at hand was revolutionary to begin with. Now, both figuratively and literally, it is even more so.

The leg up Led Zeppelin has in what might seem an obligatory reissue campaign is considerable. Jimmy Page, the band’s pioneering guitarist, doubled as producer of these initial recordings. He has also overseen the remastering process, which provides especially vivid detail to the acoustic passages of 1970’s Led Zeppelin III and makes the spaced out interplay of the majestic Dazed and Confused (from Led Zeppelin II) sound like a true trip into the cosmos. But it is with the bonus “companion” discs of unreleased material now accompanying each recording that Page hits serious paydirt.

In the case of II (the second of two 1969 albums) and III, he has patched together a scrapbook of rough mixes, blueprint versions and alternate mixes of songs fans have known by heart most of their lives. The results are similar in intent to what the Beatles did nearly 20 years ago with their Anthology series. There is little by way of actual unearthed songs. But these works-in-progress act like liked a guided tour through one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most formidable catalogs.

Whole Lotta Love, the breakthrough hit from II, is presented as a live sounding beast with little studio embellishment. Even Page’s frenzied squeals come with minimal trickery, sounding like atomic duck calls as a result. But the charge provided when drummer John Bonham kicks the band back into gear after a trippy interlude is pure, handmade fury.

At the other extreme is the isolated backing track to Thank You, which makes the song into a largely pastoral instrumental. With only drums and Page’s rhythm playing as a backdrop, the lead winds up in the organ colors of bassist John Paul Jones, who makes the mighty Zeppelin sound like the more contemplative Traffic.

The companion disc for III digs a bit deeper. Immigrant Song is presented with the same unadorned clarity as Whole Lotta Love, while Friends is served as a raga-like instrumental. Then the surprises emerge.

We recognize in the guttural shuffle of Bathroom Sound the root of what would emerge on the finished album as Out on the Tiles just as Jennings Farm Blues is a jam-style predecessor to Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp. Page’s acoustic medley of the blues chestnuts Key to the Highway and Trouble in Mind with vocalist Robert Plant serve as a loose, cryptic coda.

The companion disc to Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut album differs in design to offer the biggest treat of the batch – a 70-plus minute concert recording from Paris’ Olympia Theatre that represents – especially in the electric folk frenzy Page triggers on a medley of White Summer and Black Mountain Side – the performance abandon Led Zeppelin embraced when it fled the studio and hit the heavens.

critc’s pick 327: joe henry, ‘invisible hour’

Joe-Henry-Invisible-Hour“It wasn’t peace I wanted,” sings Joe Henry at the onset of his quietly fantastical new album Invisible Hour. “So it wasn’t peace I found.”

Such rumination could be said of his entire career. A one-time Americana ambassador, avant-pop stylist and go-to producer (whose clients have ranged from Allen Toussaint to Mose Allison), Henry has shed musical skin with nearly every recording, moving from alt-country confessionals to scorched abstractions with storylines as expansive as they are impenetrable.

Invisible Hour is perhaps the most relaxed and subdued of Henry’s 13 albums. The theme that binds its 11 songs together is love, which might not seem like much of a revelation. But the vantage points these songs take possession of are what make the recording so arresting.

Conventional pop thinking dictates that modern love songs approach their subject matter from one of two extremes – the seemingly blissful sense of discovery that marks the beginning of a relationship or the scorn and unfaithfulness that trigger its demise and inevitable fallout. Henry has taken the middle ground to explore love both a constant and a mystery. In other words, Invisible Hour‘s unifying topic is marriage.

Then again, the record isn’t some guidebook to domesticity either. There is gospel imagery at work on the album-opening Sparrow (“my eye is on the sparrow, but she looks the other way”) as well as a reference to the end of days. Not exactly lovey dovey stuff. Yet love endures (“I wait for one grave angel and I know she waits for me”). That, of course, leads into a song called Grave Angels where two enjoined souls brave “love’s growling weather.”

Invisible Hour doesn’t address conflict directly, even though it never seems to be far at bay. “The loss of love one day may bear me out and away,” Henry sings later on the album. “But let’s be clear, my streaming volunteer, I want nothing more than you to see me now.” Somewhat ironically, the title to this open-ended ode is Plainspeak.

As always, the musical palette Henry chooses for his songs makes or breaks the mood. For Invisible Hour, the songs sound mostly like summer serenades. They utilize light, airy and patiently paced acoustic settings with subtle jazz colorings from son Levon Henry (on clarinets and saxophones), folk atmospherics from Greg Leisz and John Smith (on various guitars and mandolas) and subtle, otherworldly rhythm from one of the most distinctive drummers on the planet, Jay Bellerose.

Don’t mistake the results as some sort of valentine. Like love itself, the music of Invisible Hour is never obvious. But the mix of aloof contemplations and sunny soundscapes greatly freshen the perspective of modern love songs while embracing the indefinable emotions that summon them.

festival of the bluegrass: mountain heart/frank solivan and dirty kitchen/barefoot movement

dirty kitchen

frank solivan and dirty kitchen: mike munford, frank solivan, danny booth and chris luquette.

The week-long Best of Bluegrass fest made the final transformation into the Festival of the Bluegrass last night, shifting focus from multiple downtown venues (which were still active with BoB related events) to the Kentucky Horse Park. There, under the glow of a brilliant full moon, the 41st FOTB got underway with an astonishingly far reaching sampler of string band sounds.

Headliner Mountain Heart covered most of them in battalion sized jams that utilized all of the band’s seven monster players. Specifically, Mountain Heart ran through warp speed instrumentals, rustic traditional tunes, stoic ballads and, at one point, a bit of bluegrass psychedelia.

The extremes were measured early into its set with Devil’s Courthouse, a hot-wired instrumental led by fiddler Jim Van Cleve that rocketed by with solos that shifted from tradition fiddle tune fire to a progressive, new grass-style ensemble charge.

Immediately after that, the players downshifted in tempo and downsized to a quartet for a new, haunting road ballad from guitarist/keyboardist Josh Shilling called No One to Listen.

Mountain Heart also gets honors for perhaps the most improbable cover tune of the night – a reading of Jimi Hendrix’s Hey Joe that reworked the song’s dark guitar passages into a series of recoiling riffs that made the move to bluegrass seem almost obvious.

Preceding the band was the festival debut of Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, a quartet with origins in the unlikely bluegrass epicenter of Alaska.

Throughout its brief set, mandolinist Solivan let loose the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Banjo Player of the Year (Mike Munford) and Instrumentalist of the Year (guitarist Chris Luquette) in a series of largely progressive jaunts that included a refreshingly desperate sounding cover of the Box Tops hit The Letter. But when they dug into Jimmy Martin’sSophronie, the players revealed a sense of tradition that was a deep as it was effortless.

This must have been the night for far afield cover tunes. Also on last night’s bill was the Johnson City/Nashville band Barefoot Movement, a group beaming with youthful zeal that worked to its favor when exhibiting a performance demeanor still in the development stages.

They proved a brave bunch, too, for giving such disparate tunes as Wade in the Water and the Blind Melon hit No Rain bluegrass treatments that were surprisingly complimentary.

(View Rich Copley’s photo gallery of Dale Ann Bradley’s BoB/Thursday Night Live show here.)

Critic’s pick: ‘Common Ground: Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy’

DaveAlvinPhilAlvin-CommonGroundIn the liner notes to his first full studio recording with brother Phil Alvin in over 30 years, Dave Alvin cites the enduring roots music of Big Bill Broonzy as the siblings’ “shared musical square one.” Hence the name of the Alvins’ extraordinary new Broonzy tribute: Common Ground.

In listening to the brothers’ collective take on a dozen Broonzy classics – from subtle, folk contemplations to riotous bits of juke joint jump blues – you gain appreciation for what made the Alvins’ own music so arresting when it came to light some 35 years ago.

At the dawn of the ‘80s, the two were at the center of a post punk movement that roared out of Southern California. But the brothers were infatuated with tradition more than revolution. As such, they infused their band, The Blasters, with a new generation look at decades-old rock, blues, rockabilly and blues music. Dave Alvin wrote the bulk of the songs and drove the band with unrelenting (but elemental) guitar bravado. Phil Alvin possessed a high tenor voice that wasn’t just intense. It was downright combustible. Even on the inside cover photo to Common Ground, you see Phil gritting his teeth as he sings.

The Blasters broke up in short order. The brothers went separate ways with Dave Alvin building a modest but devoutly championed solo career. The original Blasters briefly reunited, but nothing new by way recordings from the Alvins surfaced until now.

Common Ground might seem like a scholarly and relaxed adventure at first, but you won’t find yourself kicking back for long.

The opening All By Myself sets the stage as much for Broonzy’s music as it does for the Alvins’ studio reunion. With Dave’s wiry National steel guitar leading the way, we are reminded of the high spirits that pervaded even the most despondent of Broonzy’s tunes. The song embraces solitude as a form of celebratory emancipation, whether the task at hand is womanizing or prison time. The feel on Southern Flood Blues is more desperate, but the brothers simply enhance the mood with a greasy electric groove.

The Alvins aren’t natural harmonizers. Phil is the star vocalist while Dave sings with a more conversational air, although they create an appealing blend on Stuff They Call Money with help from pianist Gene Taylor, another original Blaster who assists throughout the album.

The more prevalent, but less definable, harmony comes from the soul-scorched precision of Phil’s singing and the commanding roots authority of Dave’s guitarwork. The tough but endearing life lessons in Broonzy’s songs may be the link that enabled the brothers to record together again. But it’s that collar-grabbing combo of voice and guitar that allows everyone to have a blast on Common Ground.

critic’s pick 325: nikki lane, all or nothin’

nikki laneIn the music video accompanying the leadoff track of her fine sophomore album All or Nothin’, Nikki Lane settles a score with a gal pal’s abusive lover by letting the business end of a baseball bat do the talking. The proclamation that comes out of the confrontation suggests a few more attitude adjustments are also in the making: “It’s always the right time to do the wrong thing.”

Since its release last month, All or Nothin’ has become one of the most hyped neo-country records of the season, one that sells the kind of hard and fast living tales that modern Nashville female stars love to claim as second nature. Luckily, All or Nothin’ makes good on its promise thanks to a fistful of honest but tough knuckled songs, a fearsome batch of musicians highlighted by guitar dynamo Kenny Vaughan and an unlikely but quite proven Nash-vegan as producer – Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys.

Of course, the first thing that grabs you is the singing – the product of a slight, imperfect, boozy voice that never oversells its sense of authority or defiance. On Good Man, it appears with a withdrawn drawl, a la Lucinda Williams. Then you take note of the accompanying music, a big beat girl group charge reminiscent of The Ronettes but spiked with ominous guitar twang and tremolo. Finally, the lyrics kick in – namely, a weary domestic reflection that hits the bullseye of a dovetailing, disrespectful romance (“The simplest thing that would make my heart ring… well, you don’t even think to do it”).

That’s actually one of the gentler reveries of All or Nothin’, although the song neatly summarizes the strengths in Lane’s music. Traditional references surface, however, once the dust of Lane’s songs settle.

Man Up, for example, possesses the kinds of clever melodic hooks and narrative assertion that would do ‘70s era Loretta Lynn proud while Want My Heart Back masks its profound sense of abandonment with the sort of the of orchestral pop backdrop that recalls the ‘60s records of Dusty Springfield

Auerbach gets his kicks in, too. I Don’t Care marches along at such an urgent, punctuated clip that it could have been on bonus tune of The Black Keys’ new Turn Blue album. Then on Love’s on Fire, Lane and Auerbach team up for a restless duet that begins as an acoustic dirge before kicking into a country campfire sing-a-along.

In the end, Lane is nobody’s fool. Throughout All or Nothin’ she summons a straight talking sense of undiluted country sentiment that is best served when she calls a lover’s bluff during Wild One. “If you’ve got such a great ambition,” she sings, “then, honey, why are you still hanging around?’

You can almost see her reaching for the bat again as she sings, too.

critic’s pick 324: john mclaughlin and the 4th dimension, ‘the boston record’ and ralph towner/john abercrombie, ‘five years later’

mclaughlinAs elder statesmen in a world class league of guitar innovators, John McLaughlin, Ralph Towner and John Abercrombie have seen the instrumental music crafted under their care over the past four decades marketed under the somewhat deceptive banner of jazz. But on their newest releases, the ingenuity of their playing relishes in the blurring of stylistic borders.

The Boston Record finds McLaughlin, 72, in concert on sacred academic soil – Boston’s Berklee College of Music – with his favored fusion band of the past seven years, the 4th Dimension.

The tone of the playing is established at the onset with the fat, menacing power chords McLaughlin supplies to Raju and the heavy rhythmic ammo the rest of the band sets off. The music approximates metal until everyone shifts gears into a more nimble glide. Then the guitarist luxuriates in the kinds of winding, warp speed lines that have defined his musicianship since his groundbreaking early ‘70s recordings with the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Speaking of which, The Boston Record confronts the latter by updating the 1972 Mahavishnu gem You Know You Know. McLaughlin has seldom addressed the band’s music since its demise. But here, the tune is not so much a look back as a ragged and playful jam that stands on its own terms with the muscular rock/funk support of the 4th Dimension as a very capable foil.

five-years-laterFive Years Later, a collection of guitar duets by ECM guitar vets Towner, 74, and Abercrombie, 69, could be appropriately retitled Three Decades Later. Recorded in 1981, on the heels of an extraordinary performance at the University of Kentucky’s Memorial Hall, the album has long been out of print. Remarkably, it is only now receiving its first domestic release on CD.

The lines of demarcation are fairly set on Five Years Later. Abercrombie plays primarily electric guitar, creating washes of atmospheric color, while Towner sticks exclusively to acoustic. Within his playing, classical influences mingle with percussive, folk-flavored incantations.

The resulting music is sublime but unsettled. Abercrombie’s electric chords chip off like falling icicles around Towner’s contemplative soloing on Late Night Passenger while the two spar with light, exacting agility during Isla. But the central theme of Caminata possesses more Eastern European inspirations (especially Mussorgsky) while The Juggler’s Etude is a pensive ballet with both guitarists conversing acoustically.

Separated by roughly 32 years but still representing the same artistic generation, these records are wildly different in every way except for the sense of adventure that is so inherent and visible in the playing. When listened to side by side, the decades separating them evaporate.

critic’s pick 323: the doors, ‘weird scenes inside the gold mine’

The-Doors-ReissueWhen The Doors’ Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine was first issued in late 1972, the band was no more. Frontman Jim Morrison, wrecked from years of drug and alcohol induced abuse, died in Paris the previous year. His bandmates – Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger and John Densmore – quickly recorded two post Morrison albums (Other Voices and Full Circle) that went nowhere, confirming that The Doors without Morrison as its commanding though combustible focal point were a non-starter.

Reissued this week for this first time on CD, Gold Mine has always been a curiosity because it was never designed as a greatest hits collection. There were hits scattered among the two-album set, but they were employed sparingly (Touch Me and Light My Fire didn’t make the cut, Break on Through and Riders on the Storm did). The thrust of the anthology was to plunge deeper into The Doors’ catalogue. That meant exploring the darker extremes of the band’s musical psyche.

That’s a greater task than one might expect, seeing as The Doors released only six albums (excluding concert sets and the post Morrison efforts) during its five year recording career. But for every hit the band got onto AM radio, two or three counterparts were embraced by FM. Each of the original Doors studio albums revealed a degree of that duality. On Gold Mine, it positively gleamed.

The breakdown on Gold Mine split the Doors’ songs into three categories – the obvious hits (Love Her Madly), the popular album tracks (L.A. Woman) and the obscurities (Horse Latitudes). The tunes were then reshuffled into no particular order except, perhaps, for musical flow.

For example, the sordid jazz drive of Break on Through, which begins the anthology, gives way to the trippy keyboard dervish of Strange Days. That, in turns, melts into harpsichord/guitar psychedelia of the overlooked Shaman’s Blues.

There are also buried treasures. Among Gold Mine’s discoveries are two forgotten, blues-directed B-sides – 1969’s brassy Who Scared You and a 1971 cover of Willie Dixon’s Don’t Go No Further. The crowning touch was the choice to use the band’s two most twisted epics – The End and When the Music’s Over (clocking in at 11 minutes each) as epilogues for its two discs.

What all this translates into is, in essence, a grand mix tape. Frustrated that the band would be remembered only for a smattering of radio hits, Gold Mine sought to unleash all of The Doors’ dark, poetic charm. While many of these songs have been heard over the decades in countless other reissues and anthologies, hearing them bond so readily on Gold Mine gives the full exotic extremes of The Doors a renewed presence and purpose.

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