Growing Old With Rock and Roll

Growing Old With Rock and Roll

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Muddy Waters - Hard Again (1977)

Written by Jason Hillenburg, posted by blog admin

There’s a strong case to be made that the most significant moment of Johnny Winter’s career didn’t come with his epic sophomore album Second Winter or later achievements like Still Alive and Well; some voices, instead, argue Winter’s contributions as bandleader and producer of Muddy Waters’ 1977 Hard Again marked a seminal moment when the Texan born slide guitar master reached his full maturity as a bluesman. Hardcore devotees of the form definitely owe him a debt of gratitude. He steered the iconic Waters back to first principles, prodding him to play guitar again rather than relying on his voice, and invested each of the aforementioned nine cuts with a bracing live attack engaging listeners from the first. Muddy is accompanied by some longtime collaborators and a virtual All-Star lineup – pianist “Pinetop” Perkins, drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, and harmonica master James Cotton play at an inspired level throughout the entirety of Hard Again.  Few albums truly deserve the label “classic”, but this is one of them.

Thank you Tom Roznowski. The former host of Power/Rock 92.3 FM Bloomington’s Blues Sunday played the album opener “Mannish Boy” at the end of a long bygone day of rest and changed my life forever. I groped in a pile of blank cassettes and stuffed one inside my tape deck in a rushed attempt to capture the track and snagged a near complete version I played to death in the following years. Willie Smith lays down a groove so deep in the pocket that it practically sounds subterranean. Winter, second guitarist Bob Margolin, and Waters whip up a near lascivious version of this timeless Chicago blues classic. Winter places Waters’ voice front and center and the Delta born singer responds with a vocal for the ages. Another gritty original, “Bus Driver”, has an understated lascivious turn as well with its chorus and the molasses deep crawl gives Waters an ideal platform for unleashing his voice in full. It’s an invigorating listen.

“Jealous Hearted Man” is another peak on the recording. The churning arrangement draws out a percussive minded Waters, his vocal resonating with heartache and humor alike, and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith once again stands out thanks to his work on the kit. It’s simple and straight forward, but swings in a propulsive way few drummers can match. “I Can’t Be Satisfied” drops the electrified trappings for a few in favor of acoustic instrumentation, particularly slide guitar, and draws listener’s attention to the immense gravitas behind Muddy’s voice. This album is, hands down, one of the nation’s premier vocalists recapturing his peak powers for a final time, and providing a Master’s class on how to inhabit the blues without even a hint of self-consciousness. The best songs on Hard Again roll out of Muddy as naturally as breathing.

The popular and rollicking “The Blues Had a Baby and They Named It Rock and Roll #2”” boasts one of Muddy’s most confident, yet relaxed, vocal performances on the album. It famously hangs on the payoff line in each chorus and Muddy manages to give it a slightly different, ever charismatic spin, on each pass while he pumps the verses up with a consistent bravado that never tires listeners. “Crosseyed Cat” has another churning arrangement, albeit laid out very differently than the earlier “Jealous Hearted Man”, and James Cotton’s harmonica gives it a romping character it might have otherwise lacked. Smith lays some well timed fills into the performance that helps accentuate its steady rolling pulse while orchestrating the dynamic shifts from one passage into the next. The instrumental intensity only continues to build and the guitar breaks near the song’s end are especially tasty.

The slow drag of the album’s finale, “Little Girl”, neatly bookends the opener while copping a more muted feel. There’s none of the boasting we hear in “Mannish Boy”, but there’s definitely an edge of suggestiveness in the lyrics Muddy plays with just the right amount of attitude. He indulges some familiar “calling out” for Winter’s guitar and the Texan great responds with spot on blues guitar that acts as Muddy’s instrumental counterpoint rather than seizing glory for itself alone. It’s one of Winter’s finest hours as a guitarist and we can definitely credit him with leading the great Muddy Waters out of a wilderness of increasingly lackluster all-star affairs and ill advised attempts to appeal to modern listeners. Winter gets Muddy doing what he does best on Hard Again and what we’re left with is an enduring monument to one of America’s true musical giants.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Dio - Dream Evil (1987)

Written by Jason Hillenburg, posted by blog admin

Ronnie James Dio’s 1987 album Dream Evil stands as a demarcation point of sorts for anyone interested in the legendary singer/songwriter’s career. His first solo release without guitarist Vivian Campbell features Craig Goldy’s first stint as Dio’s guitar player surrounded by the remnants of Dio Mark I – drummer Vinny Appice, keyboardist Claude Schnell, and bassist Jimmy Bain. Dio’s waning commercial peak took a hit with this relatively middle of the road album – he needed a firm hit to reconsolidate his appeal in the late 80’s and with Campbell’s departure, but Dream Evil ultimately produced middling returns and led Dio to configure his lineup yet again before 1990’s Lock Up the Wolves.

“Night People” teeters between predictability and something truly distinctive thanks to Dio’s contributions or would otherwise sound solidly pedestrian. It’s competent enough; no one can ever claim there’s a lack of polish in this performance, but genuine inspiration is scarce. The title song is a conscious attempt at another “Holy Diver” like moment. It fails, however, because there’s no real spark – instead of having a melody listeners can sink their teeth into, everything is built around the chorus payoff which is really nothing else but synthesizer flourishes amplifying the moment. “Sunset Superman” is one of the album’s more effective songs because it foregoes any sort of frills in favor of marching straight ahead and as an unambiguous hard rock track. Goldy excels here playing the song’s compact, tightly wound riff with crisp aggression.

Songs like “All the Fools Sailed Away” became mainstays on Dio’s solo releases for some time – pseudo poetic missives anchored by broad stroked depictions of unity and a faux profound chorus. This is one of the more hamfisted examples but achieves, to its credit, an impressive theatrical effect despite itself and the obviously tacked on instrumental breaks are, nonetheless, memorable. “Overlove” is a stripped back bruiser, much like the earlier “Sunset Superman”, and another underrated gem from Dream Evil. Goldy really works best on these straight forward rockers. The single “I Could Have Been a Dreamer” generated next to no attention for the album on release and it’s easy to hear why; much like the earlier title track, there is no real melody to speak of, only a keyboard laden chorus.

“Faces in the Window” has some unexpected vocal elements, but the arrangement has a largely rote feel oddly distinguished, however, by one of Goldy’s finest solos on the album. The release closes with the swinging drums behind “When a Woman Cries”. Keyboards exert a much stronger presence in this song than earlier tracks and we’re snapped out of the moment by the awkward presentation of the chorus on a couple occasions/ It’s a fine track, one of the album’s more interesting moments, but not entirely successful. Dream Evil definitely has historical significance over Dio’s solo career, in hindsight, it is a solid though unremarkable transitional release.

Prince - HITnRUN Phase One (2015)

Written by Jason Hillenburg, posted by blog admin

The first of two albums preceding his 2016 death, Prince’s two volume HITnRUN Phase One release more than qualifies as a major final statement from, inarguably, one of the most important recording artists and songwriters active during the second half of the 20th century. The two albums are brimming with wild and free-ranging musical events; if Prince felt constraints of any sort in his everyday life, his music remained as iconoclastic as ever while still mining and refurbishing long standing traditions.

“Million $ Show” features the guest vocals of Judith Hill and reflects increasing self-referential inclinations in Prince’s songwriting. Sampling “Purple Rain” and “When Doves Cry”, however, isn’t enough to redeem a track essentially intended as a showcase for vocal pyrotechnics and a little too frantic to capitalize on its clear promise. The second track “Shut This Down” is akin to a clinched fist and the hard electro-funk highlights impressive bass playing, an overall keystone for both albums. Prince unleashes his best hard rock voice here, a visceral yowl quite appropriate for the song. “Ain’t About 2 Stop” has a dense musical attack in keeping with other efforts on Hit ‘n’ Run Phase One, but there’s an undeniably dark undercurrent fueling both the song and performance – the song’s confident surface ultimately sounds desperate instead of boisterous.

Prince’s guitar playing provides an incandescent glow for “This Could B Us”. The track mixes a traditional soul template with Prince’s restless creativity and the blend produces a signature variation on those respective formulas. It’s odd, but gloriously so. We’ve heard this sort of re-invention from Prince before, but he makes it sound fresh each time. “Fallinlove2nite” is a hit that never was, a sure smash if released during Prince’s late eighties/early nineties commercial peak, and reaffirms traditional and abiding strengths. “It’s Face” has an autobiographical suggestiveness that may prove interesting to some, but the immediacy of his vocal coupled with its range, the hard electronic funk driving it forward, and visceral lyrical content make this one of the more gripping moments on either release.

The song’s penultimate track, “1000 X’s and O’s”, is another example of Prince’s lifetime reverence for classic R&B/soul. The minimalist arrangement focuses much more on texture and mood above virtuosity and the production stresses a warm, fat bass sound anchoring the groove. The finale “June” has a strong synth presence throughout, but it is droning rather than melodic. There are positives to this “experiment” of sorts – juxtaposed against the aforementioned setting, Prince’s singing has a ghostly quality, but the song is an inconclusive, diffuse close to an album audaciously creative for an established legend. The man’s muse never rested and he, until the end, continued to take chances and attack music from every possible angle.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Yam Haus - Stargazer (2018)

Written by Jason Hillenburg, posted by blog admin

There’s rock music on this release – make no mistake. Rock, however, is just one of many colors these four young Wisconsin natives draw from on Yam Haus’ debut album Stargazer. The band’s members met in high school and have played together since then and their experience with one another is borne out by their obvious chemistry. They, frankly, never sound tentative or untested. Instead, the thirteen songs on Stargazer are grounded in an upbeat aesthetic around a core sound with the flexibility to harbor multiple variations within that central theme. Their clean cut youthful appearance doesn’t readily present the reality that these four musicians are far more advanced than the typical debut act – but once you give Stargazer a single spin, you’ll soon discover that this album is a collaborative initial release quite unlike any other in recent memory.

They begin the album in a relatively bold way. Yam Haus leads things off with the album’s title track “Stargazer” and their infectious blend of vivid yet understated guitar with sparkling and creative synth lines weaving and flaring throughout the arrangement. Lead vocalist Lars Pruitt has an effortless charm in his performance drawing you in from the first and much of the key to his appeal lies in his sharp instincts for vocal melody and the palpable feeling in his voice. Kicking the album off with its title cut is a genuine statement of confidence few new artists or bands dare to dabble with, but it pays off well for Yam Haus. “Kingdom” is one of the finer songs on Stargazer thanks to its deft turn at characterization, among other reasons. It may fly under the radar due to the sheer musical creativity on display here, but the lyrical content on Stargazer is uniformly top notch and “Kingdom” stands out as one of the best cuts on this recording.

The effervescent uplift of the band’s music continues with the album’s fourth song “Get Somewhere”, particularly when it hits its exultant chorus. The smattering of backing vocals counterpointed against Pruitt’s own adds another dollop of sweetness to an already likeable tune. Jake Felstow’s drumming proves, track after track, to be an important component in the band’s success and that’s no exception with this number. “Too Many People” is an introspective track, yet never slips into melancholy or despair. Instead, it’s a remarkably measured and mature tune highlighted by Pruitt’s vocal and eloquently tasteful lead guitar from Seth Blum. This isn’t a guitar-dominated album, Yam Haus is never that predictable, but they weave their six string artistry into a larger compositional frame guaranteed to enchant listeners. Stargazer is a fully realized gem, an astonishing debut, and points the way towards a bright future for this Midwestern quartet. It’s hard to imagine that Yam Haus won’t be a presence in music lover’s lives for decades to come.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Black Sabbath - Headless Cross (1989)

Black Sabbath
Columbia, Maryland
June 4, 1989

Disc 1
1) Ava Satani
2) Headless Cross
3) Neon Knights
4) Children of the Sea
5) Call of the Wild
6) The Mob Rules
7) When Death Calls
8) War Pigs

Dropbox Disc One:

Disc 2
1) Die Young
2) Black Sabbath
3) Devil and Daughter
4) Iron Man
5) Children of the Grave
6) Heaven and Hell
7) Paranoid

Dropbox Disc Two:

I wrote in an earlier review of my introduction to Black Sabbath via Castle Communication’s Greatest Hits collection. The moment came in 1985, near or soon after my tenth birthday, and the mid-eighties soon proved to be slow going for any young kid latching onto Sabbath as an ongoing enterprise. One of my news “bibles” in those pre-Internet days, Hit Parader, remained the only magazine outlet covering the band on even a semi-regular basis and the coverage, invariably, came across with a discernibly skeptical note. My new favorite band, unfortunately, served up plenty of reasons to doubt their viability. Hit Parader chronicled in painful detail the Glenn Hughes debacle, rallied briefly around the band recruiting promising young singer Ray Gillen, covered his eventual departure and dismissive comments on the band’s future with more than a little glee, and called on guitarist and founder Tony Iommi to disband one of heavy metal’s foundational bands.

I stayed a true believer. By late 1988, I was exchanging a correspondence with original drummer Bill Ward resulting from my teenage hubris. There wasn’t any Black Sabbath biography or much attention, at all really, paid to the band’s pivotal role in shaping much of modern heavy music. I saw myself redressing that imbalance and wrote handwritten letters to each original band member, care of their respective record companies, with my proposal and a few questions to get things started. I was thirteen years old. Bill Ward answered and we began exchanging handwritten letters.

Tony Iommi never answered, but I did receive a letter. It was a mailing from the Black Sabbath Appreciation Society, ran by Pete Sarfas. I read the usual prattle about an expensive (for a thirteen year old) membership, but the letter came with news. Drummer Cozy Powell had joined the band and Sabbath had commenced work on a new studio album with the latest singer of record, Tony Martin. As a young fan of 70’s classic hard rock, I knew Powell from his playing on Rainbow’s second album Rising. It came as eye-popping news.

It meant a new round of fighting as well. By 1989, my friends firmly supported newer metal bands like Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, et al, and urged me to get with the times. If I had to listen to Sabbath, it needed to be Ozzy or else hit the bricks. For me, the heart of Black Sabbath was never the front man, it was Tony Iommi’s guitar and the vocalist needed to hit certain marks and nothing more. My friends derided Dio and new singer Tony Martin as pseudo-operatic nonsense. I didn’t care. I heard a lot on the post Ozzy albums that came off like pure Sabbath for me.

Headless Cross hit. I remember reading about the release in Parader and then seeing the video on Headbanger’s Ball, MTV’s grudging and often frustrating concession to a movement they scheduled for nowhereville on the weekends. I’m convinced an entire generation of heavy music freaks stayed awake for that MTV dribble because they knew, invariably, a gem would slip through the dreck.

I loved it. The thunderous drums, the video’s evocative yet understated atmospherics, and the Martin’s undeniable vocal power immediately impressed me. There is the big Iommi riff, yes, but we likewise hear Tony reengaging with his soloing with an immediacy more hit and miss on the band’s previous studio release The Eternal Idol. Iommi has credited Powell, in a handful of interviews, for inspiring him during a difficult time in the band’s history and their collaboration brought something of the band’s original musical spirit back, albeit in a modern context. Powell understood how juxtaposing his playing against Iommi’s guitar produced make or break opportunities for the band’s musical style and re-interpreted Bill Ward’s approach to playing with Iommi through his own sensibilities. The solo is one of Tony’s best in quite some time, excepting The Eternal Idol’s “The Shining”, and session bassist Laurence Cottle deserves a special mention in the band’s history for the job he does on the album as a whole, but the title track in particular.

I scooped up a cassette copy days later, if that, and the remainder didn’t disappoint. The album’s second song “Devil and Daughter” is more uptempo fare than the album’s title song and has a discernibly stronger commercial edge than recent Sabbath material at that point. It comes from the palpably brighter bounce Geoff Nicholls’ keyboards and Powell’s drums bring to the material, but the chorus also marks this as something very different from, let’s say, “Symptom of the Universe” or “Slipping Away”. It’s much more in the vein of mid to late eighties’ hard rock/heavy metal, but Iommi remains the clear cut link to the band’s past with another signature incendiary solo.

“When Death Calls”, a later mainstay of the tour’s live set, is one of the finest achievements from this era in the band’s history. It’s cast, superficially, in the same vein of other Sabbath “ballads”, but given a fair darker and heavier tilt than what we’re accustomed to with tracks like otherwise crunching light and shadow classic “Children of the Sea” and “The Sign of the Southern Crosses”. Martin benefits from some atmospheric production in the song’s first half, but takes over in the uptempo coda with real authority and conviction. A rare Sabbath guest spot comes here as Queen’s Brian May delivers a solo late, but ratchets up the intensity with claustrophobic and spot on lead work.

“Kill in the Spirit World” is another track where modern and retro Sabbath meets with frequently satisfying effect. The verses are guided by nice, striding drums and guitar oriented hard rock aspired to circa 1989, but the arrangement mixes in some minor key embellishments recalling the band’s earlier work. The song has an underrated chorus and Martin turns in another in a string of strong vocal performances. “Call of the Wild” isn’t a terrible song, but it’s a tone deaf misstep for this particular band. One of their contemporizes, Deep Purple, included a song with the same title on their 1988 release House of the Blue Light and it still stands as one of the more painfully veteran attempts to find hard rock relevancy in the later 1980’s… because it’s so utterly out of character. This is a song practically announcing how it’s written to formula; it’s a mixed blessing, however, that the song so successfully realizes that formula. The lyrics tackle familiar tropes – but they do with a turn of phrase all their own.

The album’s penultimate tune, “Black Moon”, frequently makes lists of neglected Sabbath classics for good reason. Buried on an unjustly neglected non-Ozzy album, this drum driven barnburner benefits, as well, from some fiery Iommi lead guitar. The production is key to the song’s success, however, thanks to the theatrical setting given to both Powell’s drumming and Martin’s vocal. The finale “Nightwing” is a dramatic curtain closer for the original release. It opens with one of the best Iommi acoustic pieces in his recording career while, predictably, alternating between light and heavy. It’s another of those aforementioned sleeper tunes in the band’s long history and Iommi’s sensitively rendered solo puts an exclamation point on the tune unlike anything else in the band’s discography.

Tony, Geezer, even you Ozzy… I forgive you. I don’t expect you to understand. When Bruce Springsteen inducted Bob Dylan to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he described hearing “Like a Rolling Stone” for the first time. The Boss compared it to someone kicking open a door in his mind. Yes, Dylan eventually affected me in a similar way, a lot of your contemporaries did as well; music has given me much. Before all of that later music though, there was a band who gripped me musically like nothing else and Headless Cross rewarded the faith I placed in them.