Growing Old With Rock and Roll

Growing Old With Rock and Roll

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Palmer T. Lee - Winebringer (2018)


Minnesota born Palmer T. Lee, one half of acclaimed The Lowest Pair, steps out with his debut solo album Winebringer. Lee culled his inspiration for the album’s title from a collection of poems entitled The Book of the Winebringer composed by renowned Sufi poet Hafiz. The choice is deeply appropriate as a decidedly poetic feel envelopes the album from the first and reflects the introspective reach of Lee’s growing artistic powers. It likewise explores the personal cost incurred from a particularly difficult time in Lee’s life without ever finding the songwriting mired in obscurity. Instead, any discerning and emotionally alert listener will connect with the material with little effort and find the songs reveal deeper rewards with each new hearing.

The album’s subject matter is rather traditional in a way – Winebringer’s nine songs are a searching appraisal of the love and longing remaining following the end of a relationship. The intimate sound of the release brings it close to you – “Rag” opens things with Lee’s voice and acoustic guitar assuming a nearly spectral presence, but the lo-fi aspects of the recording only serve to draw you further in. Lee’s poetics are unquestionable, but the emotional tenor of his voice accentuates their quality. The patient unraveling of the opener’s arrangement continues with the second song “Aw Jeez”. Lee’s guitar work has no pretense of false virtuosity – instead, it serves the material while demonstrating obvious skill and the strain induced from ruined love comes through in its imagery and plain-spoken pleading.

“Fat Barred Owl” begins with particularly striking imagery never over-exerting itself for effect and the music has a slightly faster tempo than we hear with the album’s first two tracks. The guitar work is distinguished by some tasty embellishments that never distract listeners from the lyrical material. The album’s sixth cut, “Rice and Beets”, kicks off in ghostly fashion as Lee ruminates over a dream scene with hushed wonder. His songwriting completely brings us into the experience without ever overplaying its hand and, despite running over seven minutes, never tests our patience. It ends appropriately with a melancholy fade. Another high point arrives with the song “Moon You” and Lee is joined by an additional voice with moving results. The arrangement, likewise, moves beyond a reliance on his guitar work and bringing fiddle into the mix helps strengthen the longing in the heart of the song.

The album’s title song returns us to the customary marriage of Lee’s guitar and voice. His vocals reach new heights here – he is unafraid to push his voice hard in order to make the reality of his loss real for listeners and the level of lyrical detail reflects this as well. Often times such material can prove to be too much of a downer for us or, ultimately, self indulgent. There’s a telling control, however, in Lee’s artistry illustrating his ability to laden the tracks with significant detail and spare listeners any of the dross we might hear from lesser performers. Winebringer is an impressive achievement in every way from a songwriter, musician, and artist who has found his stride despite immense pain.

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.