Thursday, April 26, 2012

John Mellencamp Whenever We Wanted 1991

I like plenty of Mellencamp's work. He did several good ones in the eighties and nineties. I haven't heard much of his more recent music, and not for any real reason except you just can't hear everything. And besides, after you've been blown away by a really great record, sometimes you get tired of chasing the old thrill and being disappointed.

This is a one-off for Mellencamp. It rocks harder than anything else he ever did. In 1983 Uh Huh sounded like his Rolling Stones record. This one's more like AC/DC, but with Mellencamp's more natural way with melody, and Kenny Aronoff's exceptional drumming. The band is relatively stripped down; bass, drums, two guitars, keys, with a guest trumpet on two songs. The songs are non-stop, hard-rocking, and Mellencamp sings them with soul and verve. There are no clunkers.

The opening barrage, Love And Happiness, opens the album with a huge riff, and the wailing trumpet is reminiscent of Andy McKay's saxophone on Mott The Hoople's All The Way From Memphis in its skronky abandon. Now More Than Ever follows and keeps the quality, pace, and tight, snapping, loud guitars coming right in your face. The twangy guitar of I Ain't Never Satisfied complements the cheerleader chorus. Get A Leg Up's safe sex message rocks hard and fast, with a Stones-y chorus and hot guitar lead. Crazy Ones is a rollicking mess of an ode to eccentric women. The slow burn of Last Chance explodes into another fine solo.

The last four songs are as good as the six before; They're So Tough (more Stones styled rock), Melting Pot (steaming, fast and furious riff rock), Whenever We Wanted (smoldering, slow-building, with a fine chorus and great lyric) and Again Tonight (dancin' at the bar, happy, with that rhythmic sway that Mellencamp does really well), all are killer.

The sales pitch here is the guitars. Mike Wanachic and David Grissom are absolutely on fire, and Mellencamp hands them his hardest rockers. The recording of those guitars is hot and up front, but it is also a very nice dynamic recording. The softer parts are actually lower in volume, and the choruses and the lead guitar breaks leap from the speakers. There are many Stones references, but they haven't done one this good since the seventies, so who cares. Besides, Mellencamp is more than an imitation of anything.

This one goes on my very short list of near-perfect rock and roll albums.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Bonnie Raitt Slipstream 2012

I haven't bought a new Bonnie Raitt record in a while. I have several, all on vinyl from the seventies and eighties. I enjoy them every time I break them out. This new one has been getting good press, and its been released on vinyl, so I decided to check it out. In the old days you could always count on certain things from a Bonnie Raitt record. Some tasty slide guitar, Bonnie's lovely, expressive, soulfully restrained vocals, an ace backing band- they all showed up consistently. Add to that Raitt's particular ability to choose great songs by a mix of songwriters old and new, and her work is easy to like. I don't know if the ones I never heard in the intervening years kept that recipe going, but this new sure does. It's a peach. 

Raitt's band is excellent, with Hutch Hutchinson on bass, Ricky Fataar on drums, George Marinelli's guitar, and especially the organ of Mike Finnigan. To keep things more varied, Joe Henry produces three songs with a different band including the inimitable guitars of Bill Frisell and Greg Liesz. The great Al Anderson writes several songs and guests on several more. There's two Bob Dylan songs. And several choice cuts from some of today's top writers. The cover of Gerry Rafferty's Right Down The Line (to a reggae beat) is surprisingly good.

It's almost perfect. Raitt plays guitar and sings with finesse and restraint throughout. The songwriting is exemplary. Anderson's sad Not Cause I Wanted To is beautiful in Raitt's hands. Dylan's Million Miles is lovely, and Raitt nails it. Randall Bramlett's Used To Rule The World kicks the record off in fine style. Anderson's Split Decision is a fun rocker about a dysfunctional relationship. Only the closing God Only Knows (not Brian Wilson's song, but a new one by Joe Henry) is disappointing, with a sappy lyric and overly simple piano and voice arrangement.

It's a great record, and Raitt proves she's still got it. Her voice is remarkable, and has aged little since her debut in 1971. She's a better singer today, more nuanced, and yet equally emotional. And she gets a few hot leads in on slide, too. Recommended.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Joe Satriani Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards 2010

My friend is a guitar player and guitar collector, and a fan of virtuoso guitar players. He turned me on to this CD, as he often does with guitar player's records.

Satriani is a smokin' hot guitarist who can play anything. He plays a custom signature Ibanez guitar, and he can burn the thing. Technically, the guy has few peers.

Of course that means little on a CD of original rock instrumentals if Satriani can't write an interesting tune. Most of the songs here work. Some of them are little more than a riff to play leads over, but most of them are more than that. And even the songs that are just riffs are good riffs with incredible lead guitar parts that are both showcases for Satriani's talent and melodic leads that serve the songs. It's kind of like a hot Van Halen record without having to tolerate the vocals or the filler songs. Backed by Jeff Campitelli (drums), Allen Whitman (bass), and Zappa alumnus Mike Keneally (keyboards), the band is tight and all-pro. But this is Satriani's show all the way.

Satriani qualifies as a stunt guitarist, the guy that comes in to do the impossible stuff that the other guitarists would kill themselves attempting. Would you like this record? I have no idea. It's not something I'm going to listen to over and over, but I'm not a guitar player. If you play guitar and want to know how much stuff you can't do with your axe, this is the encyclopedia. It's also a very hot instrumental rock record, and you don't find all that many of them.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Dum Dum Girls Only In Dreams 2011

Recipe for Dum Dum Girls
1 part Ramones
1 part Detroit Cobras
1 part Pretenders
1 part Belly
a dash of twangy surf guitar

Put all ingredients in blender. Blend on high. Serve loud.

Singer/songwriter Dee Dee has a voice like Chrissie Hynde, an attitude like Joey Ramone, and a batch of songs that could be twisted sixties girl-group anthems in a different setting. Here the songs are played at maximum speed and volume, and the rest of the band lends fine support both instrumentally and vocally. Jules' twangy guitar adds a unique sound that works surprisingly well in the wall of noise mix. That mix is my only gripe with the record. It is relentless, and relentlessly loud, and this gives the tunes a sameness that could have been avoided with a tad more production, and dare I say, dynamics in the recording.

Looking for quality modern day punk? Look no further.

Thursday, April 5, 2012


I used to sing in a garage band when I was younger. In fact, we still get together once a year and play one weekend party thrown by my good friend, one of the guitar players, and a singer himself. The parties are fun and usually the band sounds good. Sometimes I lose my voice, but there are four other singers in the band. I digress. The drummers are always the nicest guys. Every drummer I've ever played with or known was just a great dude.

And totally essential. I've said before, and still believe, that you can have a great band with a great singer, a very good songwriter, and a good drummer. It's not that the rest isn't important. But you can get by with a sub-standard guitarist, mediocre bass and keys, if there's a drummer pushing everything forward. And when a band has a boring drummer, nothing can save it.

Yes I'm going with the drummer over the other instrumentalists. They make all the difference in the world. You know, for me. And did I mention what nice guys they are? I'm certain that it is happenstance alone that accounts for the fact that every drummer I've ever known was such a nice guy. There must also be the other kind.

There are those not flashy, perfect time-keepers, and the little flourishes they add are always perfect (Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts, Levon Helm). They may not be hotshots, but it's hard to find them anything but right for the song, every time. Then there are the wild men, jazz and vinegar-infused, verging on chaos, that make it impossible to imagine their bands without them (Mitch Mitchell, Ginger Baker, Keith Moon). Between are those classy percussionists that add so much flavor to everything they do (Ainsley Dunbar, Jim Brock, Clyde Stubblefield). And the thousands of others that fall into one of those categories. I suppose I've left out the outright bashers of hard metal that deserve their own space in the annals of drummerhood (Phil Rudd, John Bohnam, Lars Ulrich).

I know there are plenty of other categories, and I've left out lots of great drummers, but my point is they are really that important.

Look at Grand Funk- Songs, OK, singing, OK, drums, OK, guitar and bass, uh, well, ya know, limited utility. Don Brewer was holdin' down the fort. You really think the Who would have excited anybody without Moon? That arrogant Townsend might think so, but just listen to their music. I know it's a great band, and you can't really give any one person more credit, but they had the singer and the songwriter, and Townsend's guitar wasn't going to get the attention without Moon. Listen to Hendrix with Buddy Miles. Need I say more?

Drummers. If you don't have a good one, fuggedaboutit.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Taj Mahal Music Keeps Me Together 1975

Digging deep into the back catalog, I dug out this gem a few days ago. I've got a list of disclaimers for this one: I'm not a real blues fan; I'm really not into the World music thing; I don't own any other Taj Mahal records, and I never have, and the guy has made over 30 records, and received Grammy awards in 1997 and 2000.

That said, I've always liked this unusual record. A blend of blues, pop, African, Jamaican, and Caribbean influences, the record is especially joyful, and clearly a product of its time.

Music Keeps Me Together is a jazzy, breezy, happy African and reggae-lite blend that starts things off in fine style. When I Feel The Sea Beneath My Soul is a lilting Caribbean instrumental followed by the jazzy flute-lead ballad Dear Ladies, which breaks into a quicker tempo and a hot lead guitar break near the end.The New Orleans feel of Aristocracy opens with a second line rhythm, spoken poetry reading followed by a faster, hot instrumental section. The walking blues of Further On Down The Road follows, with soul and Reggae vibes, and fabulous organ, sax, and Taj's fine vocal. Roll, Turn, Spin ends the first side, and it's a lovely, happy, joyous Caribbean instrumental featuring super guitar and sax leads.

Side Two is slightly less perfect, but only slightly. West Indian Revelation starts things off on a high note. A flute- and sax-lead reggae, including a great hook in the chorus, it's excellent. My Ancestors is a Reggae/Caribbean/African blend that never quite escapes its own inertia. Recovery comes quickly with Mahal's take on Chuck Berry's Brown-Eyed Handsome Man. Done in what sounds like a Bahamian style (yeah, I'm makin' this up), Taj sings beautifully, the song has a deep, laid-back groove, and the background chorus of female voices is stellar. The record ends with Why...And We Repeat Why?...And We Repeat!, a Brazilian-flavored, jazzy instrumental with killer sax and electric guitar leads that comes dangerously close to smooth jazz without quite crossing the line.  

A mid-seventies, bluesy, jazzy, reggae record with a few other flavors thrown in. An amazing band. Earl Lindo of reggae fame on keys, Larry MacDonald's percussion, and Rudy Costa's sax, carinet and flute all add significant depth, and Taj Mahal and Hoshal Wright play guitars that thrill.  

Is it great? Should you hear it? If you come across a nice, clean copy of the vinyl in a used shop, do not hesitate. There may be too much reggae for some, but the record is recorded beautifully, a little hot, a little up front, a little in your face, it jumps out of the stereo at you. It's good.

Reissued on CD in 2009, so it is available in that format, too.