Growing Old With Rock and Roll

Growing Old With Rock and Roll

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Samantha Leon - s/t (2017)


Written by Lance Wright, posted by blog admin

Get ready for this because Samantha Leon will be around for a long time to come. Few new singer/songwriters in recent years have emerged with such an unguarded, powerhouse approach to their art while still retaining a pop accessibility that allows even casual listeners to enjoy the performances. It’s a neat balancing trick and, certainly, a rare skill. Her voice is suggestive of much and gives the lyrical content an added charm and sophistication that it already possesses. Her passion is revealed, if nothing else, by the fact she believed in herself and this project enough that it is funded through a Kickstarter campaign, but it goes beyond that – the fact that an artist without any official release yet has inspired those fans who have seen her to contribute their hard earned money in an effort to help her be noticed. She will certainly be noticed by many more after this effort.

She begins the EP with the track “Bright Yellow Shoes (No Turbulence Mix)” and the sparse stylishness of the song gives Leon ample room to move and exhibit her emotive talents. The soulfulness is apparent, but there’s apparent stylishness running through every line. Guitar plays an underrated role on this EP and its contributions get off to an equally fine start with this song. It takes a more compositional approach than you might expect and plays nicely against the drumming. Her lyrical aplomb comes through immediately as well. The same interplay between guitar and percussion comes through on the track “High (You Only Love Me When You’re Fu*ked Up)”, but it’s her ability as a vocalist that shines through and she conveys the rather blunt and bitter comedy of the song with an equal amount of heartbreak creeping through into her vocal. Two songs in on this EP and Leon shows herself to be a rare talent with awesome pop chops, accessibility shining through on every turn, and enough sensitivity to often lay her heart bear without ever making listeners feel like they are eavesdropping on something intensely personal and private.

“Run Away” is one of two songs on the release stretching over the five minute mark and this song specifically goes well over six minutes. It’s quite a ride nonetheless and the best song on this EP. The beauty of this performance benefits greatly from the instrumental presence, particularly the guitars, but the real center of this song is Leon’s lyric and her adroit balance between anger and pain. “Perfect” takes things in a different direction. It’s an acoustic song with a strong hip hop influence courtesy of guest vocalist Danny Matos. His voice strikes a great contrast with Leon’s and the juxtaposition helps makes this one of the EP’s more memorable numbers. “Hello, Goodbye” is another heartbroken tale that comes at a great spot on the release following the previous two numbers. The beauty of these songs comes, largely, from the fact that a world class singer/songwriter has no reservations about standing face to face with the personal revelations at the heart of each composition and fills their measure. Samantha Leon is a thrilling talent sure to be with us for many years to come.

Grade: A+

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Natalie Estes - 20/20 Vision (2017)

Written by William Elgin, posted by blog admin

Ladies and gentlemen, Natalie Estes. This young vocal sensation originally from Nashville is set to turn countless heads with her release 20/20 Vision, a four song EP that shows off her talents as an already astonishingly complete stylist, but likewise her outstanding ability to inhabit each of the EP’s lyrics. This is all relatively standard fare, in certain respects – by 2017, we are long past the point in popular song where the subject matter will be something remarkably new and nearly all musical artists revisit long popular themes. What helps Estes stand out, however, is the unrestrained zest and freshness she exhibits in unlocking these songs and her attentiveness as a singer. This never sounds like the work of a vocalist who wants to be the center of attention at all times and sings over or against the arrangements. Instead, she is with these songs every step of the way and tailors her voice to their musical character.

“Until I Do” is often times swirling and lyrical within the same breath. The piano dancing beneath the mix gives the song an appealing melodic edge while her nimble phrasing does likewise while still invoking tons of emotion. It’s quite nice how adeptly Estes and her musical collaborators can invoke rich pop textures while still imbuing them with a substance that, frankly, isn’t quite the providence of pop music as it once was. “Where’s There’s Smoke There’s Fire” amps up the creative stakes with a rousing and nearly note perfect gem that makes great use of a well worn phrase and ties with intense personal meaning to Estes’ life. She only sketches us out the details, but leaves one with little doubt in the end that she’s experienced the very emotions and scenarios driving this memorable track.

“Reminds Me of You” has a much more relaxed pop rock feel with colorful guitar fills fleshing out the arrangement and Estes striking just the right note with her own approach. There’s hints of a ballad coming through here, but it isn’t the schlocky top 40 manner that we’re all too accustomed to at this point. One of 20/20 Visions most beautiful qualities is how, despite its accessibility, it always sings out with deep emotional truth and never seems like just a half hearted, glitzy dodge to bring in casual fans. The finale “Bad Game” is, likewise, a great example of the aforementioned observation. It has a light retro feel, like early nineties pop, but it also has one of Estes’ best vocal moments on the EP and a band that sounds like they are playing behind her with a thrilling good for broke attitude. Modern performers don’t come much more promising than Natalie Estes and 20/20 Vision is a formative work.

Grade: A

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Nazareth - Hair of the Dog (1975)

There’s a time when it all comes together for an iconic band, It’s when they reach their peak. They hit their prime. The prime might last for a single album or, more rarely, sustain itself over a string of releases. It invariably comes with youth. It invariably comes in youth. It comes long before cynicism takes hold and the only things about being a rock band that seem real are the money and miles.

There is near universal consensus that moment came for Nazareth with the 1975 release of their seminal eight song collection (nine in some editions) Hair of the Dog. This review will not debate that point – it’s impossible to quantify artistic achievement. There is no question, however, that Hair of the Dog catapulted the band to a higher level of commercial success, primarily on the back of the smash single “Love Hurts”, than they previously experienced. What is it about this album that sets it apart from earlier fine efforts like Razamanaz or Loud & Proud?

The focus is stronger here. After navigating their most recent releases with Deep Purple’s Roger Glover serving as producer, lead guitarist and primary songwriter Manny Charlton opted to handle producing Hair of the Dog. The differences are noticeable. Charlton certainly gleaned a great deal of insight from the band’s time working with Glover, but he clearly favors a much more assertive presentation for the band whilst retaining an artful tastefulness not always found on the aforementioned releases. Few portions of the album better illustrate that than the opening one two punch of the title track and “Miss Misery”. The former, naturally, became a concert and classic rock radio staple. It’s taken at a little more of a relaxed paced on the studio recording than the band served up live; it accentuates drummer Darrell Sweet’s strengths even more and lends added clarity to Charlton’s guitar work.

“Miss Misery” succeeds, in no small part, thanks to Charlton’s grinding guitar riff. There’s more though. Vocalist Dan McCafferty summons up his biggest bucket of blood blues vocal yet and sets a standard that future progeny like AC/DC’s Brian Johnson never exceeded. “Love Hurts” set a different standard and, in essence, birthed a genre – the power ballad. Some might argue it later became an albatross around the band’s neck with numerous cash-in re-recordings and perfunctory  performances, but there’s a measure of genius in Charlton resurrecting a relatively minor hit from rock and roll’s birth and recasting it for a shaggy cadre of Scottish blues rockers. My guess is that Charlton knew what he had with McCafferty when, maybe, his fellow band mates, including Dan McCafferty himself, didn’t realize it. If there’s a fair historical accounting ever done for the singers of major 70’s rock bands, McCafferty deserves a reckoning as one of the best singers from his generation. “Love Hurts” remains a crowning achievement on his career for good reason.

The “Black Dog” feel of “Changin’ Times” memorably segues into some straight ahead riffing that you never find in a Led Zeppelin song. There’s an added element of humor in this performance that you’d never go looking for from Jimmy Page and company. Darrell Sweet’s drumming, once again, deserves mention as the exceptional timing he shows on “Changin’ Times” is no small part of its success. The band’s cover of the Niles Lofgren penned “Beggar’s Day” is reminiscent of McCafferty’s vocal on the earlier “Miss Misery”. He’s particularly effective with Charlton on the bridges leading into each chorus. It’s one of Manny’s best solos on the album and really fits quite nicely into the song. “Rose in the Heather” is a brief and keyboard laced interlude between the previous song and the next, but it isn’t filler. It is, instead, a welcome change of pace and recaptures an aspect of the band’s spirit we haven’t heard since the band’s first two albums.
“Whiskey Drinkin’ Woman” scarcely sounds like the same band. This is blues as American and English musicians of that generation alike seldom understood it. There’s a popular story of Muddy Waters hearing legendary folk singer Dave Von Ronk performing “Hoochie Coochie Man: as some scorched earth acoustic blues and breaking out into laughter. To paraphrase Muddy’s description, Von Ronk didn’t understand that certain songs are intended to be funny – that sometimes the best way to keep from crying is to just laugh. Nazareth, unlike many bands of the era, seemed to understand that about the blues and give us a true original with this song that embraces the past nonetheless. The closer “Please Don’t Judas Me” runs nearly ten minutes in length and encompasses everything the band learned over the process of living, writing, and recording their previous albums. The introduction of keyboard sounds and orchestration alone qualify this as something much different from what the band had attempted before. It ends a fine album in just the right way.

What has been learned? I have an opinion and take eight hundred plus words to explicate it. I believe, however, that if one ear turns to take another listen to this classic, well, beery syllable is worth the struggle.

Grade: A+