Leon Russell

Life Journey

UMe

russellAfter Russell’s successful 2010 duet album with Elton John (“The Union”), big labels were suddenly knocking again on the Oklahoma-born singer/songwriter/pianist’s door. But they wanted him to do something he’d never done: use a producer.

So Russell recruited Tommy LiPuma, one-time principal at Blue Thumb Records, the late 1960s/early ’70s album-oriented independent rock ‘n’ roll label whose roster included Captain Beefheart, Albert Collins, Earl Hooker, Dave Mason, Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks and the Crusaders. The two had never worked together, but LiPuma had produced George Benson’s 1976 cover of Russell’s “This Masquerade” (No. 3, Billboard R&B singles; No. 6, adult contemporary;  No. 10, Hot 100).

LiPuma granted Russell carte blanche to play whatever he liked. As the album progressed, Russell realized it was shaping up as standards he’d either done in session or solo work, or had always wanted to do — “a record of my musical journey through this life,” as he relates in the liner notes.

Rod Stewart’s “Great American Songbook” it ain’t. From the down-to-earth reading of Robert Johnson’s “Come on in My Kitchen” (featuring former band member Chris Simmons’ rollicking slide-guitar work) to the simmered-in-strings slow blues/jazz of “The Masquerade Is Over,” Russell is clearly having a ball jumping from genre to genre.

A pair of unexpected tunes turn out to be worthy: Paul Anka’s “I Really Miss You,” first heard as an Anka-Russell collaboration on Anka’s 2013 “Duets,” here featuring pedal-steel player extraordinaire Greg Leisz; and Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” one of three tunes with L.A.’s Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra.

Only two songs are Russell compositions: “Big Lips” and “Down in Dixieland,” earlier versions of which are found on his 2008 “In Your Dreams.”

Especially noteworthy:

• ”Georgia on My Mind,” a reciprocation of Ray Charles’ cover of Russell’s “A Song for You.”

• ”Fever,” tweaked into a jump-gospel version and again featuring Simmons’ exquisite slide.

• “That Lucky Old Sun,”  a prior rendition of which appeared on Russell’s 2002 “Moonlight & Love Songs,” but here showcasing the heavenly sound of pedal steel (Leisz) and Hammond B3 organ (sideman supreme Larry Goldings) in tandem.gnm_end_bug

Tracks
1. Come On In My Kitchen
2. Big Lips
3. Georgia On My Mind
4. That Lucky Old Sun
5. Fever
6. Think Of Me
7. I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good
8. The Masquerade Is Over
9. I Really Miss You
10. New York State Of Mind
11. Fool’s Paradise
12. Down In Dixieland

Total time: 47:34

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Steve Dawson

Rattlesnake Cage

Black Hen

dawsonThis is Canadian guitarist/producer/record-label head Dawson’s second instrumental release, the first being 2008′s “Telescope,” which was the result of a grant to study pedal steel guitar under L.A. session man Greg Leisz. “Rattlesnake,” however, is strictly acoustic.

The album was recorded between tours and production work during the latter half of 2013. There were no overdubs or effects: just some fingers, slides and four guitars (a Larrivée Jumbo, Michael Dunn-built Weissenborn, National Tricone and Taylor 12-string) stuck in front of a Neuman M49 mic rescued after 50 years from a Detroit church.

There are shades of Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, John Fahey, Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder, Leo Kottke, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Rose in the 11 original compositions. Ragtime, fingerstyle, slide, gospel, resophonic, country — all manner of old-time guitar is here, recorded and mastered oh so well for optimum enjoyment.

A few of the tunes even have that authentic speed-up/slow-down thing, where the music sounds like a 33⅓ LP perfectly sped up to 45 or 78 rpm and then brought back to normal.

Slide fans will take special note of “Flophouse Oratory,” the title cut, “Butterfly Stunt,”  the interestingly titled “While the West Was Won, the Earth Didn’t Know It” and “Chunky.”gnm_end_bug

Tracks
1. Blind Thomas At The Crime Scene
2. Flophouse Oratory
3. The Medicine Show Comes To Avalon
4. Rattlesnake Cage
5. Lighthouse Avenue
6. Butterfly Stunt
7. While The West Was Won, The Earth Didn’t Know It
8. J.R. Lockley’s Dilemna
9. The Flagpole Skater Laughs From Above
10. Chunky
11. The Altar At Center Raven

Total time: 41:26

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The Record Company

Feels So Good

TRC

recordcoGood New Music doesn’t review EPs unless the circumstances are extenuating — say, for instance, when an occasional blues-rock band comes along that makes the listener prick up his or her ears. Such is the case with the Record Company, an independent Los Angeles-based trio whose output now consists of three extended-play albums and a few stray singles.

The band’s guitarist, bass player and drummer grew up, respectively, in Milwaukee, Philadelphia and upstate New York. Perhaps this geographical diversity contributed to their well-traveled sound, sporting influences from Muddy Waters to the Stooges to Morphine. Not since Treat Her Right has a group sounded so smart, passionate and original in their approach to the blues.

Their songs have already been placed in in numerous ads and TV series, and the title track — a swampy rave-up that sounds like CCR jamming with the Yardbirds — was used in the theatrical trailer for “Last Vegas.” Not too shabby considering they formed less than two years ago.

“Roll Bones” recalls Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac, with the added attraction of a mix that puts the bass upfront and a less-is-more slide solo smack dab in the middle. “Hard Day Coming Down” has a revivalist feel, complete with heavy acoustic strumming, group-vocal refrains and a taste of harmonica. “Baby I’m Broken” features mouth harp throughout, a pseudomilitary drum shuffle, and lets the bass have a mini-workout without interrupting the vocals.

Ending with “Darlin’ Jane,” the album veers into West Coast country-rock à la “Workingman’s Dead,” perhaps not all that surprising considering the group included a laid-back cover of the Grateful Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie”on its 2012 “Covers EP” (which, by the way, is available as a free download on the Record Company’s website).gnm_end_bug

Tracks
1. Feels So Good
2. Roll Bones
3. Hard Day Coming Down
4. Baby I’m Broken
5. Darlin’ Jane

Total time: 18:46

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Jonny Kaplan and the Lazy Stars

Sparkle and Shine

Reckless Grace

kaplanJonny Kaplan has toiled in obscurity stateside since independently releasing his 1997 debut, “California Heart” — arguably one of the best latter-day country-rock albums to come out of Los Angeles.

He’s worked with Kings of Leon, the Wallflowers, Lucinda Williams, Keith Richards and Wilco. He plays to sell-out crowds in Europe, where his last two albums were released  before they were available domestically. He was a member of the Sin City All Stars, a revolving collective of LA-based musicians that served as house band for the “Return to Sin City: A Tribute to Gram Parsons” concerts in 2004.

“Sparkle and Shine” is the Philadelphia-born musician and songwriter’s fourth effort and first to receive a proper U.S. release. On it, he broadens his palette with an array of sounds and styles, beginning with the full-steam-ahead, Stones-like title track. Kaplan’s voice is very much in tune, but it’s no stretch to imagine Keith Richards covering it, and Kaplan and Dan Wistrom’s slide guitars clinch the deal.

Also featuring twin slide noises is the bluesy “Annalee Meets the Scorpion,” with Kaplan and Wistrom on resonator and slide guitars, respectively, bolstered by Adam MacDougall’s (Black Crowes) B-3 organ.

“The Child Is Gone,” the album’s longest cut at eight minutes, is one of three songs featuring Chris Lawrence on pedal steel. The waltz gradually builds in intensity, finishing with two minutes of instrumental interplay between Wistrom and Lawrence, whose ethereal playing undoubtedly has Jerry Garcia smiling down from above.

Fans of electric 12-string will dig “I’ll Be Around,” which recalls the Byrds but has more of a sunshine-pop vibe than a jingle-jangle feel, thanks to Kaplan’s smooth multitracked vocals. And “Garage Cleaner” boasts some of the best Fender Rhodes this side of the Youngbloods circa “Elephant Mountain,” courtesy the Wallflowers’ Rami Jaffee, whose Fonogenic Studios served as the spawning ground for “Sparkle.”

Taking the album out on a poignant note is the lustful “Pretty Little Nose,” an acoustic-guitar-flavored tale of a man who craves forbidden fruit. Making things even more bittersweet are the violin embellishments by Jessy Greene (Wilco, the Jayhawks, Golden Smog) and Lawrence’s pedal steel.gnm_end_bug

Tracks
1. Sparkle And Shine
2. Annalee Meets The Scorpion
3. Helena’s Afraid
4. When You’re Down
5. The Child Is Gone
6. I’ll Be Around
7. Sweet Magnolia Flower
8. Billings Blues
9. Garage Cleaner
10. Always
11. Pretty Little Nose

Total time: 48:09

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Ray Manzarek & Roy Rogers

Twisted Tales

Chops Not Chaps

manzarek-rogersDoors keyboardist Ray Manzarek finished his third collaboration with slide guitarist Roy Rogers shortly before he died. He and Rogers had just signed off on cover art when Manzarek left for Germany, where he succumbed to bile duct cancer May 20 at the RoMed Clinic in Rosenheim.

The two began their collaboration at the behest of their mutual booking agent. “It was the agent that suggested we play together at one of Ray’s solo shows,” Rogers told Good New Music by e-mail. “So, Ray invited me to sit in on his gig — I think it was in Healdsburg (near San Francisco). It was just one of those special situations that some real ‘magic’ happened between us playing together onstage for the first time. We were ‘sympatico’ from the beginning! That is when we became friends and started performing a lot as a duet after that.”

“Twisted Tales” follows 2008′s instrumental acoustic duet album “Ballads Before the Rain” and 2011′s full-band “Translucent Blues.”

“It was a natural transition from duet to band,” Rogers explained, “because both Ray and I wished to expand the sound and rock it up. The new material we were working on at the time (‘Translucent Blues’) called for a rhythm section. … ’Twisted Tales’ is really a continuation of that, but musically — it is very different.”

“Twisted” is more jazzy and less swampy than its predecessor but still rooted in blues-rock. Like “Translucent,” it features lyrics by San Francisco beat poet Michael McClure and late poet/songwriter Jim Carroll, with Carroll contributing to four songs and McClure to three. Of those seven, “Just Like Sherlock Holmes,” “Eagle in a Whirlpool,” “Cops Talk” and “Street of Crocodiles” were performed live in 2003 by the Doors of the 21st Century (Manzarek, former Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger and vocalist Ian Astbury of the Cult). At least some of those appear to be newer versions here, with Rogers credited as writing or co-writing music for two of them.

Rogers brought two new compositions to the table (“The Will to Survive” and “State of the World”) as well as one he wrote with Donna Johnston (“Shoulder Ghosts”), a lyricist with whom he has worked in the past.

“I first met Roy back in the ’80s, when he was touring with John Lee Hooker,” Johnston, a retired school teacher in Connecticut, told GNM. ”As I watched the band, I was completely blown away by this slide guitar player whose dexterity put him into the mutant zone as far as I was concerned. … In the ’90s, after another friend suggested I combine my love of music with the writing skills everyone always said I had, I tentatively began writing lyrics and shared them with Roy, looking for a thumbs up/thumbs down on whether or not he thought my efforts were worth pursuing. He gave me a thumbs up, and when I later gave him ‘My Lost Home in Your Arms’ (from 1998′s ‘Pleasure and Pain’), he read it and concluded on the spot that he would do something with it. And that was the official beginning of our collaboration.”

Excellent lyrics aside, “Twisted” is nothing but high adventure musically. ”Holmes” is heavy on “L.A. Woman”-style barrelhouse piano and spiced up with organ. Manzarek takes the lead vocal,  but Rogers lets his slippery slide do the talking.

“Eagle,” included in spoken-word format on last year’s live Manzarek-McClure collaboration “The Piano Poems,” is done boogie-woogie style here, with Rogers handling lead vocals.

On “Cops Talk,” Manzarek and Rogers trade off singing Carroll’s verses (about conversations between dirty police officers) but join in unison for the chorus. The guitar mosty sits this one out, deferring to a jazzy solo by saxophonist George Brooks.

“Street of Crocodiles” boasts an appropriately Cuban beat, with Manzarek and Rogers again trading off on vocals. But hearing a slide guitar on a tropical arrangement makes the song even more of an unexpected pleasure.

As Johnston, who went on the road to sell merchandise for the two “Translucent” East Coast tours, said in her e-mail: “These two intelligent, well-read world travelers shared so much — a love of film, an appreciation of classical music, common roots in the blues, and, above all, a mutual sense of respect and trust. … I think a big part of their willingness and ability to be so courageous in pushing back boundaries was precisely because their extraordinary friendship created a safe and comfortable environment for that exploration.”gnm_end_bug

Tracks
1. Just Like Sherlock Holmes
2. Eagle In A Whirlpool
3. Cops Talk
4. Street Of Crocodiles
5. American Woman
6. Shoulder Ghosts
7. The Will To Survive
8. Black Wine/Spank Me with a Rose
9. State of the World
10. Numbers

Total time: 44:42

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