Album Review: Blackberry Smoke – Holding All The Roses

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Title: Holding All The Roses

Artist: Blackberry Smoke

Genre: Southern Rock/Country Rock

5 STARS

 

Review

With songs as diverse as the dishes of food on Grandma’s Sunday afternoon dinner table, Holding All The Roses, the fourth studio album from Atlanta’s Blackberry Smoke, is a record that shows a band that is maturing, both musically and thematically. And is if that wasn’t enough, the record, which was produced by Brendon O’Brien (AC/DC, Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen), just sounds great.

Lyrically, Charlie Starr sings of love lost on “Living in the Song,” revenge on “Paybacks a Bitch”, narcissism and the need for some people to be the center of attention on “Wish in One Hand”, and the destructive power of drugs and hopelessness on the heartbreakingly honest “Too High.”

Musically, the band is in top form throughout the album. The first track, “Let Me Help You (Find the Door),” is a solid southern rock song that hits you right between the eyes. The title track is a great bit of southern boogie, with great acoustic guitar and fiddle interplay, followed by a rocking electric guitar solo. “Rock and Roll Again,” the first song I heard via streaming prior to the release of the album, is a fun song with an old time rock n roll vibe, with a little edgy electric guitar thrown in for good measure. “Lay It All on Me” is a simple country song that is held together with Brandon Still’s piano and keyboard work, along with some fine steel guitar.

Blackberry Smoke’s rhythm section, consisting of Brit Turner on drums and Richard Turner on bass guitar, lays a solid foundation throughout the album. Brandon Still’s keyboards, though understated much of the time, really shine through, particularly when he’s providing thoughtful texture with what sounds like a Hammond B-3 organ. The guitar duo of Charlie Starr and Paul Jackson is a solid as any duo out there in country music and southern rock. Charlie Starr’s vocals are distinctly southern – soft and melodic, loud and gruff – perfect for the band’s music.

Though I’m a self-professed prog-rock snob, Blackberry Smoke came onto my radar in 2013 when I was flipping through the channels and came across one of their concerts. What I saw and heard took me back to 70s-era southern rock – Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, Blackfoot, and Molly Hatchett – stuff I listened to on WFBQ-Indianapolis as a preteen and teenager. Blackberry Smoke’s heartfelt music and honest lyrics about everyday problems really appealed to me. I immediately went out and purchased all of their music. Holding All The Roses has all of that and more. The music has a universal appeal that is sure to span genres and generations. Thanks for keeping it real guys!

Album Review: Blackberry Smoke – Leave a Scar: Live in North Carolina

MQ7gErNTitle: Leave a Scar: Live in North Carolina

Artist: Blackberry Smoke

Genre: Southern Rock/Country Rock

5 STARS

Review

Let me start by saying that there isn’t much “new” music that excites me.  Over the last several years, the only band that got me really excited was Black Country Communion, and they’ve broken up now.  Then, in late 2013, I was flipping through the channels on the television and ran across Blackberry Smoke “Live at the Georgia Theater” on Palladia.  Since I am always looking for new music, I settled in and watched.  The music, the look of the band, Charlie Starr’s stage presence – everything drew me in.  I immediately bought the three studio albums, and have been a fan since.

Blackberry Smoke is a band on a mission to bring Southern rock back to America.  Not since its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s has southern rock been as exciting as it is right now, and Blackberry Smoke is the reason.  With three studio albums to their credit (2004’s Bad Luck Ain’t No Crime, 2009’s Little Piece of Dixie, and 2012’s The Whippoorwill) Blackberry Smoke finally released a live album, Leave a Scar: Live in North Carolina, an album that showcases the band doing what they do best – playing live.

Made up of guitarists Charlie Starr (also lead vocals) and Paul Jackson, rhythm section Richard Turner (bass) and Brit Turner (drums), and Brandon Still on keyboards, the band rips through a 22-song set consisting of a healthy dose of southern rock, country, outlaw country, and the blues.  And when I say country, I don’t mean the pop country bullshit that seems to be favored by many “country” artists these days.  I’m talking about rollicking, fun country like Waylon and Willie used to sing.  In fact, the song “Son of the Bourbon,” a song that sounds like seventies’ country music, actually opens with a slice of Johnny Bush’s “Whiskey River,” made famous by Willie Nelson in the seventies.

Other highlights on the album include “Up in Smoke,” a chugging, guitar-driven rocker, and “Crimson Moon,” a great mix of seventies-era classic rock and country lyrics.  In “One Horse Town,” vocalist/guitarist Charlie Starr laments the death of the American small town, a desire to leave, and fears of leaving (“we all stick around ‘cause they tell us to”).  John Mellencamp anyone?

The band also pays tribute to some of their classic rock heroes.  On “Aint’ Much Left of Me” the band breaks into a honky-tonk version of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks,” and they pay tribute to the Allman Brothers, playing part of “Midnight Rider” during “Sleeping Dogs.”

Great musicianship defines the band.  I am most impressed with Brandon Still’s prowess on the keyboards.  His playing reminds me of late Lynyrd Skynyrd keyboardist Billy Powell, which seems fitting because Blackberry Smoke is the new flag-bearer for Southern rock.

Bottom line: This is a great live album by a great band!  I’ll be catching them on the road this fall.  You should too.  In the meantime, check out this album.  You’ll be glad you did!

Music Review: John Mellencamp 1978 – 2012

5 STARS

imgresWhen you think of iconic American rock artists and iconic American rock songs, it’s hard to imagine turning on the radio and not hearing John Mellencamp singing songs like “Jack & Diane,” “I Need a Lover,” and “Pink Houses.”   On December 10, 2013, Mellencamp fans get the ultimate Christmas gift: John Mellencamp 1978 – 2012, a sprawling 19-disc, 223 song, career-spanning box set that includes John CougarNo Better Than This, and everything in between.

What I like about this box set is the fact that it is a truly comprehensive look at the career of one of America’s most beloved musical sons.  It has something for everyone.  If you want straight ahead rock and roll, Mellencamp’s early releases like John CougarNothin’ Matters And What If It DidAmerican Fool, and Uh-Huh will satisfy your itch.

With Scarecrow, Mellencamp’s musical sound and the content of his lyrics start to mature, a trend that continues with The Lonesome JubileeBig DaddyWhenever We WantedHuman WheelsDance NakedMr. Happy Go LuckyJohn Mellencamp, and Cuttin’ Heads.  Many of these songs fit well on adult contemporary radio.  This is perhaps my favorite period of Mellencamp’s music because it is, in my opinion, the most musically and lyrically diverse.

On Mellencamp’s most recent four albums, including Trouble No MoreFreedom’s RoadNo Better Than This, and Life, Death, Love and Freedom, Mellencamp takes a minimalistic approach to his music.  These four albums take us on a journey through roots music, and are a mixture of country, bluegrass, blues, and folk music.  They paint a beautiful, sometimes brutal picture of life in rural America.

The box set contains a couple of surprises.  Rough Harvest is a collection of acoustic versions of some of Mellencamp’s classics, including three of my favorites, “Human Wheels,” Rain on the Scarecrow,” and “Jackie Brown.”  It also contains a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Farewell Angelina,” a song made famous by Joan Baez, a cover of “Under the Boardwalk” by The Drifters, and Van Morrison’s “Wild Night.”

The box set also includes the soundtrack to Falling From Grace, Mellencamp’s acting and directorial debut.  The movie was a flop, but the soundtrack is an album I find myself coming back to on a regular basis.  Aside from Mellencamp, the album has songs by the likes of Dwight Yoakam, John Prine, Nanci Griffith, Janis Ian, and Larry Rollins.  “Whiskey Burnin’” by Larry Crane, Mellencamp’s then-lead guitarist, is one of the album’s best songs, second only to “Sweet Suzanne,” a spirited collaboration between Mellencamp, Yoakam, Prine, Joe Ely, and James McMurtry.

My one complaint is that I would like to have seen the music presented in random order, not chronologically.  When listening, it would have been nice to experience different eras of Mellencamp’s career side-by-side.  This is a minor complaint though.  This box set staggering in its scope, and is a fitting tribute to one of America’s great musicians.  Thanks for 35 years of great music, John!  Can we get 35 more?

Note: The reviewer was provided with a digital copy of this box set in exchange for an impartial review.

Album Review: IV by Blackfield

*****

downloadBlackfield started as a collaboration between Porcupine Tree frontman Steven Wilson and Israeli pop and rock singer Aviv Geffen.  The first two albums, Blackfield and Blackfield II are brilliant albums that are hard to categorize.  When I describe early Blackfield to people, I say it’s “dark pop.”  There are some guitar-heavy moments on each of these albums, but most of the music is a maudlin mix beautiful, lush melodies, and lyrics about isolation, lost love, and abuse, themes common in Steven Wilson’s songwriting.  2011’s Welcome To My DNA found Steven Wilson ceding creative control to Aviv Geffen, which is evident when listening to the album.

Disappointingly, this trend has continued on Blackfield’s IV.  I’m not taking anything away from Aviv Geffen.  He’s a good singer and songwriter, and there are some well-constructed songs on IV.  The musicians’ playing is solid, with Steven Wilson contributing on guitar.  Wilson and Geffen both sing on the album’s opening song, “Pills,” which is perhaps the best song on the album.  Wilson sings lead vocals on “Jupiter,” the only song aside from “Pills” that actually sounds like Blackfield.

“X-Ray” is a beautiful song, featuring Vincent Cavanagh of alt-rock band Anathema on vocals.  “Firefly” and “The Only Fool Is Me” also feature guest vocalists Brett Anderson (Suede lead vocalist) and Jonathan Donahue (Mercury Rev, The Flaming Lips) respectively.  Geffen’s use of these talented guest vocalists doesn’t add value to the Blackfield brand; in fact, I would argue that it actually weakens it.

Geffen provides vocals on the remaining tracks on the album, none of which stand out.  I think this can be attributed to Steven Wilson’s absence in the song-writing and arranging process.

Bottom line: IV is a decent album, but it doesn’t sound like a Blackfield album.  I realize that some bands change their sound or style over time, but this album goes beyond a change in sound or style.  The songwriting is not up to par with the first two Blackfield albums, or even with the band’s third album, Welcome To My DNA.  This is a direct result of Steven Wilson’s minimal involvement with the album.  What a shame.

Album Review Dream Theater by Dream Theater

*****

downloadEvery time I hear that Dream Theater is going to release another album, I get a little excited–not like I do when I hear that Rush is releasing a new album, but excited nonetheless.  On September 24, 2013, Dream Theater released its eponymous twelfth album.  The album begins with “False Awakening Suite,” a short, majestic piece that highlights Jordan Rudess’s keyboard playing.  The next song, “The Enemy Inside,” is a blisterin

g, guitar-heavy song about living with guilt and shame.  Mike Mangini’s drumming is machine-like.  Hearing these two songs left me hopeful that the rest of the album would be as good.  Instead, I was left feeling cheated and disappointed.

The musicians in Dream Theater are at the top of their game.  The musical interplay between John Petrucci, John Myung, Jordan Rudess, and Mike Mangini is mind-boggling and awe-inspiring.  James LaBrie still has great vocal range, though much of the time he brings a level of pomposity to his singing that is exceeded only by Creed’s Scott Stapp.

Disappointingly, Dream Theater’s song-writing hasn’t evolved at the same pace as their musical prowess.  On this album, songs like “Behind The Veil” and “Surrender To Reason” are devoid of emotion.  Then you have “The Bigger Picture” and “Along For the Ride,” two sappy ballads, typical of many of Dream Theater’s more recent albums.

“Enigma Machine” is a decent instrumental, with Petrucci, Myung and Rudess interacting musically on a level that most musicians can only dream of.  But still, there is something very sterile about the way the song feels.  Maybe it’s that the playing is too perfect, too mechanical.

The final song on the album, “Illumination Theory,” sounds like an exercise in using a computer to combine discordant pieces of music into a 22-minute song.  Again, the playing is excellent.  However, the song  doesn’t flow  from one section to the next very well, not like Rush’s “Natural Science,” “Xanadu,” or “Hemispheres.”

Bottom line: The musicianship on this album is excellent, but the song-writing is lacking.

 

Album Review: Vapor Trails Remixed by Rush

25510Vapor Trails, the seventeenth album by Canadian prog-rockers Rush, was released in May 2002, nearly six years after the band’s previous studio album, Test For Echo.  A welcome sight for Rush fans, Vapor Trails  signaled the band’s return to recording and touring following a long period of uncertainty about the band’s future.  A little over a month after the band finished its Test for Echo tour in 1997, drummer Neil Peart’s 19 year-old daughter was killed in a car accident.  Ten months later, in August 1998, Neil’s common law wife of 22 years died of cancer.  Peart went into a self-imposed exile until 2000.

I remember the day that I bought Vapor Trails.  It was a great day, because I had tangible proof that my favorite rock band wasn’t done yet.  I also remember being a more than bit disappointed by the album.  It wasn’t the quality of the songs that disappointed me; it was the way the album sounded – very dense and distorted.  It was missing the intricacy, depth, and complexity that I had become accustomed to.  Because of the poor sound quality, Vapor Trails was among my least-played Rush albums, along with Roll The Bones and Presto.

When Retrospective III was released in 2009, it contained two songs from Vapor Trails: “One Little Victory” and “Earthshine,” both of which were remixed for the compilation.  When I listened to these two songs, I was blown away.  Both remixed versions sounded much better than the originals.  This got me thinking how great it would be if the entire album was remixed.  Finally, four years later, Rush fans get Vapor Trails Remixed.

The first time I listened to Vapor Trails RemixedI was afraid that I would be disappointed, that the album wouldn’t live up to its billing.  Boy was I wrong.  The sound quality of Vapor Trails Remixed is vastly improved.  Gone is the muddy, distorted bottom end, which rendered the original album almost unlistenable.  It has been replaced with a crisp, clean-sounding album full of really good songs – songs with lots of layers and depth, songs worthy of being on a Rush album.  The remix brought out musical nuances unheard on the previous version.

Alex Lifeson’s guitar work benefited the most from the remix.  His guitar shines through, sometimes clean and bright, sometimes crunchy and dirty.  On the original album, the guitar was buried under a thick layer of distorted bass.  And speaking of bass, Geddy Lee’s bass guitar work is second to none.  His use of bass chords and right-handed finger strumming really adds thickness to the songs.  Neil Peart’s drumming is powerful and clean, brought to the forefront in the remix.

Bottom line: Amazon currently has Vapor Trails Remixed for $9.00.  That’s a small price to pay for great music that was liberated from the morass of a bad mix.  Listeners familiar with the original album will be pleased with this “new” Rush album.

*****

My Desert Island Dozen

Music is an integral part of my life, my constant companion.  I spend upwards of fifty hours per week listening to music, mostly on my iPod, though recently I discovered Spotify.  It has allowed me to venture beyond the 16,000 songs on my iPod.  With a seemingly endless supply of music at my fingertips, why do I find myself going back to the same music?  Because while new is exciting, there is comfort in that which is familiar.  If I had to choose only twelve albums—a desert island list—I’d start with the double-barrell threat of Zamfir and his magical pan flute, and maybe some Yanni.  Then, realizing I’d died and gone to hell, I would find two sharpened pencils and jam them into my ears.  Actually, here’s my list, in no particular order:

Rush – Clockwork Angels (release date June 12, 2012)

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Clockwork Angels is Rush’s latest offering, and is their best album since 1982’s Signals.  It is Rush’s first concept album.  Don’t piss and moan to me about 2112. It is only half a concept album – side 1 – 2112.  Clockwork Angels tells the story of a young man chasing his dreams through a world of alchemy and steampunk, while the Watchmaker imposes strict order on everything.  “Caravan” and “Headlong Flight” are two songs with as much bombastic power as anything Rush has ever played, and “The Garden” is perhaps the most heartfelt song they’ve ever written.  Neil Peart and Geddy Lee are both 60, and Alex Lifeson are each 59, and they aren’t showing any signs of slowing down.

Steven Wilson – Grace for Drowning (release date September 26, 2011)

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Stephen Wilson is best known as the founder of Porcupine Tree, the brilliant British prog-rock group.  However, his second solo album, Grace for Drowning, is perhaps his best work.  This is a dark, dark album employing an array of musical styles ranging from jazz to classical to heavy metal to progressive rock.  Give it a try.  “Remainder the Black Dog,” “Sectarian,” and “Belle de Jour” highlight an album packed with great songs.  If you’re looking for uplifting music, this isn’t the album for you.

Blackfield – Blackfield II (release date March 6, 2007)

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Blackfield is another of Steven Wilson’s projects, a collaboration with Israeli pop-star Aviv Geffen.  Blackfield II is filled songs about love, loss, and failure.  It’s a morose collection with an endearing pop sensibility.

Joe Bonamassa – Live from the Royal Albert Hall (release date September 22, 2009)

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This is the album that got me started on Joe Bonamassa.  “The Ballad of John Henry” is perhaps the best song on the album, though I think the most powerful is “Asking Around For You,” a song about lost love that describes heaven as a place “where we all can sit and talk a while / play some cards and drink black coffee.”  I hope Joe is right about that.

Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here (release date September 12, 1975)

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In addition to the brilliant title track, this album contains Pink Floyd’s crowning musical achievement: “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” a touching tribute to their former bandmate, Syd Barrett.  This is not my favorite Pink Floyd album.  That honor goes to Animals.  But if I’m going to be stuck on a desert island with a Floyd album, Wish You Were Here is the one.

Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy (release date March 28, 1973)

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Forget IV.  Front to back, Houses of the Holy is Zeppelin’s finest album.  The album starts with Jimmy Page’s blazing 12-string guitar on “The Song Remains the Same,” and finishes with “The Ocean.”  In between are such classics  as “The Rain Song,” “D’yer Mak’er,” and the haunting “No Quarter.” Every song on this album is a classic.

Opeth – Damnation (release date April 14, 2003)

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There were lots of people wearing Opeth t-shirts at the first Porcupine Tree concert I attended at a Cincinnati dump called Bogart’s back in 2005.  I was curious, so I did a little Internet research.  Turns out Opeth is a progressive metal outfit from Sweden.  At random, I selected and ordered my first Opeth album, Damnation.  As I would soon discover, Damnation is a severe departure from the band’s other albums, which are full of heavy, progressive riffs, and a mix of clean and cookie-monster vocals.  Damnation contains no cookie-monster vocals, and is chock-full of acoustic guitars, mellotron, and lament.

Black Country Communion – Black Country Communion (release date September 21, 2010)

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Black Country Communion, the band’s eponymous first album, is perhaps the best straight-ahead rock and roll record since Guns N’ Roses blew everyone away with Appetite For Destruction in 1987.  I know, I know, that’s quite a bold statement.  But when you combine the talents of guitar master Joe Bonamassa, rock’s elder statesman Glenn Hughes, Jason Bonham (yes, the son of Zep’s John Bonham), and Derek Sherinian, you’re bound to end up with something special.  And BCC is very, very special—a balls out hard rock band straight out of the ‘70s.

Porcupine Tree – In Absentia (release date September 24, 2002)

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In Absentia was my first taste of Porcupine Tree, so this album holds a really special place in my heart.  Even though none of its songs are longer than 8 minutes, In Absentia is a prog-rock masterpiece, on a level, I would argue, with Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here.  It is also the band’s first album with drummer Gavin Harrison, perhaps the second-best drummer in the world behind Karen Carpenter…uh, I mean Neil Peart.

Rush – Moving Pictures (release date February 12, 1981)

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I don’t know if Moving Pictures is Rush’s best work, though it is certainly their most popular, containing rock radio staples “Tom Sawyer” and “Limelight.”  There isn’t a clunker on this album.  The album is special to me because it was the first Rush album I got. Actually, I taped a Q95 (WFBQ 94.7 – Indianapolis) broadcast of the album on a TDK D-90 cassette using a ratty old GE boombox.  I believe Ace Cosby was the jock who played it that night.  I can still remember the pops and cracks on the tape from the vinyl.

Deep Purple – Machine Head (release date March 1972)

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Machine Head is the quintessential Deep Purple album.  With classic rock radio staples like “Highway Star,” “Smoke On The Water,” and “Space Truckin’,” it’s a no-brainer for my time on the island.  Created by the classic Mark II lineup of Deep Purple, which consisted of Ritchie Blackmore (guitar), Ian Gillan (vocals), Roger Glover (bass guitar), Ian Paice (drums), and the late Jon Lord (keyboards), Machine Head hits you in the mouth from the opening riff of “Highway Star.”  Plus, it contains my favorite Deep Purple song, “Lazy,” which opens with some wicked keyboarding by Jon Lord.  If you’ve not heard this album, you owe it to yourself to crawl out from under the rock you’ve been under for the last 40 years and give it a listen.  You’ll be blown away.

Sting – The Dream of the Blue Turtles (release date June 1, 1985)

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This may seem an odd departure from the previous eleven selections, but I just love this album.  It is a severe departure from Sting’s work with The Police, filled with a lot of jazz, and some classical influences as well.  “Moon over Bourbon Street,” a song about a vampire, is my favorite track.  For me, this is Sting’s finest work as a solo artist.  The rest of his catalog pales in comparison.

Well, there you go.  That’s my list.  I make no apologies.  I love progressive rock, classic rock, and heavy metal.  It’s the music I cut my teeth on.  Hell, Rush has been my constant companion for over 30 years.  I’d like to see your list, if you’d care to send it to me.  Now, if I can just figure how to get power to this damn CD player…