Thursday, May 28, 2015

Macy Gray. The Way.

Macy Gray. The Way
Kobalt Records, 2014. Macy Gray:
Macy Gray has the joie de vivre to create within her. Even with a sizable career and stream of past exploits the woman has continued to move forward, with more sentiment than ever present in her creations. This album breaks early and surfs on verse after verse, sweeping you along with it. One way to describe the vivacity of "The Way" is by interpreting it is as though Macy Gray was staring down the God of Dispassion and telling it to go screw itself.
There are ten tracks to traverse on this release, each in and of themselves flipsides to the dreariness and angst found in the content of incredibly successful yet depressed megabands. The mood on Gray's The Way is charged not only because of its lyrical content and rhythm but because of its aim, to move and flex across its emotions and impulses.
Power lights the horizon immediately when first appraising The Way with your ears. One could put this album on shuffle while on a road trip and have a good time with whatever popped up. And speaking of which, let's do that now.
You might toss and turn at night after hearing number 4's "I Miss the Sex," a mournful yet elegant number that is probably one of the more profound, original pieces about the deed that's been written in a while. There's longing in the air but nothing too melodramatic. The second track, "Bang Bang," does indeed please with full-blown, toothed guitar riffs, burning more with attitude as it goes on. I could easily hear an instrumental of this one playing during an episode of Cowboy Bebop with the gritty style behind its sound.
Track six "The Way" starts out sounding like a very particular portion of Irving Berlin's "The Near Future" but then shoots a boost into the tempo and leaves questions hanging on its notes. "Hands" brings about thoughts of what it might be like to be in the center of a roller disco in the seventies, making it one of the bouncier songs on the album. "Life is beautiful" sings Gray on the final track of the album, repeated again and again with a basic message that cuts a path of feeling through the oft inevitable and dithering melancholy the world can throw at us, the perfect foe to be countered with music.
The remaining tracks have just as much intrigue and allure in them. Flitting from one song to the next whets the appetite and with each one truly being different from the next you get a variety that is as toned as it is successful. The texture is an accomplishment that really sets itself apart from the standard stock of any genre where the tendency to stick to the same path time after time appears too tempting to resist, making Gray's work all the more laudable here.

"The Way" holds up well when compared to past releases by Gray, and the rust of predictability doesn't show around the edges for this fare. It's distinct from what she's done before and though it's strong I couldn't say I found it as memorable as some of the content on the her 2010 release The Sellout. Is there cross-over for some of the subject matter? Yes, but it is expressed differently enough that it's a whole new landscape to deal with, and if appraised on its own or as a continuation of past themes on other albums it makes sense. Regardless, this is a fully-developed disc that continues Gray's evolution as an artist, enough that by the end you are encouraged to wonder where she is creatively heading to next.
The technical merits of this album, as with the previous ones, are as huge as they are complicated, with a sizable mass of producers, engineers, musicians, and others behind the construction of each song. There are extremes out there for the recording process, with the punk rockers and rappers on one end carving out their musical inspirations in a bare bones basement or warehouse, and then there is the other avenue where the business is done in a professional recording studio or two to get the desired sheen where it should be. Miss Gray would be the latter for this one so those seeking something with an indy sound and feel would do well to plumb the far realm of elsewhere.
And then of course there is the alchemical marvel that is Gray's voice itself. It can only be attributed to collective unconscious blunder why this woman has not been compared more with other singers and musicians that use their voices the way they so desired, types like Tom Waits and Ma Rainey. A gut reaction might find such a comparison oblique but Gray really does possess her own beauty in delivery that balances between smooth and gruff in a nuanced way, and such skill places her among the greats that know how to do that. Simply put, her style is an experience that's a welcome deviation from the norm.
People already know who Macy Gray is most likely because of past hits like "I Try" and they have all the more reason to continue knowing her most recent work by giving The Way some good listens. For a time Marilyn Manson was in the same high school with her, she has appeared not only in Spiderman but Training Day, and even has a bronze nude of herself that resides in her garage, but for all the glory Macy Gray has in her life already she can say that she's got even more to give with her newest release. There's splendor here and a vintage aftershock in your memory that reverberates long after the last song finishes.
Personnel: Macy "Natalie Renée McIntyre" Gray (Vocals, Producer), Royal Z (Producer and various instruments), Jason Hill (Producer), Booker T. Jones (Producer), Zoux (Producer), and many, many others.
Tracks: Stoned, Bang Bang, Hands, I Miss the Sex, First Time, The Way, Queen of the Big Hurt, Me with You, Need You Now, Life.   

Robert Gojo

Monday, May 25, 2015

Tom Tallitsch. All Together Now.

Tom Tallitsch.  All Together Now.
Posi-Tone Records, 2015.  Tom Tallitsch:

It must be the season for good jazz releases. Tom Tallitsch’s last CD, Ride, was reviewed here about a year ago, and his releases seem to be coming at a faster rate than ever.  His third album for Posi-Tone brings back two of his bandmates from last year, bassist Peter Brendler and trombonist Michael Dease, replaces the pianist and drummer, and adds an alto sax player Mike DiRubbo for some higher notes. The result is a somewhat richer and fuller sound. Nine of the eleven tunes are originals, with a Zappa composition and one by Robbie Robertson rounding out the set.

Tallitsch covers some of the same ground as he did on the last release, but here he emphasizes gospel and blues. Case in point, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” a classic piece of Americana in the hands of The Band, becomes a gospel showpiece in the hands of this band.  While the gospel influence was always there, Tallitsch really brings it to the front, even while sticking close to the melody. The style is revisited in the closing track, “Arches,” one of his own tunes. Tallitsch plays it light, sweet, and slow, with some lovely solo work by several of the band members. The tune has the same sad, downward drift as the “Midnight Cowboy Theme” (it took me a few minutes to recall what this reminded me of).  On the blues side, “Uncle Remus” takes us furthest into that style, with some delicious keyboard work by Brian Charette, while the Zappa/Duke song “Greasy Over Easy” delivers in similar fashion, with a bit of a soul twist.

Elsewhere, we hear a lot of fine tunes, some faster, some slower, each creating its own space and delivering a different view of the group’s work. “Passages,” the opener, gives everybody a quick solo in fast tempo, as if it were an overture to the rest of the album. “Slippery Rock” takes a slower pace with Tallitsch and DiRubbo trading off on their saxes.  “Border Crossing” lets the group sound nearly like a big band with saxes and trombone all playing in unison, and “Curmudgeon” does the same, but gives Michael Dease a nice chance to be featured with some soulful trombone. "Medicine Man" sounds like Paul Desmond is nearby. Nearly everywhere Brian Charette adds to the mix or provides short pithy solos that sometimes quote familiar tunes. Underneath it all is the fine rhythm section of Brendler and Ferber, anchoring the group strongly, but never ostentatiously so, and occasionally surfacing for a short feature. Sometimes I mention a favorite tune, but here I can’t. They’re all good.

All Together Now gives Tallitsch the opportunity to show off his arranging skills and melodic sensibilities, which are considerable. All of the musicians do an excellent job individually, but the great thing about this album is the ensemble feel.  While everyone gets their chances to solo, just as often two instruments are paired up, and the interplay between them creates fascinating textures throughout. Nobody dominates, and as a result, the title is an apt description of what goes on here. The only thing missing is the Beatles song.

Personnel:  Tom Tallitsch (tenor sax), Mike DiRubbo (alto sax), Michael Dease (trombone), Brian Charette (piano, organ), Peter Brendler (bass), Mark Ferber (drums).
Tracks: Passages, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Slippery Rock, Big Sky, Border Crossing, Curmudgeon, Uncle Remus, Medicine Man, Greasy Over Easy, Dunes, Arches.

Jeff Wanser

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Boz Scaggs. A Fool to Care.

Boz Scaggs.  A Fool to Care.
429 Records, 2015.  Boz Scaggs:

We reviewed Scaggs’ last album, Memphis, just over two years ago, and here he is back with another release. With many of the same musicians backing him, there’s a certain continuity in sound as well as style, but this time, instead of an emphasis on the city in Tennessee we hear a whole lot of New Orleans, a big chunk of roadhouse, and a bit of jazz and disco. This is not a bad thing, as Scaggs’ voice fits nicely in those genres, and he gets some help from Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams in the vocal department.

Only one song is an original, “Hell to Pay,” which is done as a duet with Ms. Raitt, and it’s a fine one, with a good, solid bluesy feel. The other duet, “Whispering Pines,” features Ms. Williams and reinterprets the Band’s classic tune in a way that is hard to classify, other than as a lovely ballad. The title track is an old Ted Daffan song and sound like classic New Orleans R&B. Odd that it’s the shortest track on the album. The opener falls into the same style, and makes me think of Fats Domino and Frogman Henry. And speaking of New Orleans, Scaggs includes a Huey Smith tune, “High Blood Pressure,” a fine workout. These three songs stitch the tone of the album together, despite some side roads taken in other tracks. A couple of other ballads take advantage of Scaggs’ ability to put a song across, my favorite being “There’s a Storm Comin’,” a gorgeous gem of a song that includes some 50s-style guitar by Ray Parker, Jr. Following on its heels is a classic soul tune by Curtis Mayfield, “I’m So Proud,” which gives Scaggs the chance to use his high range. “Last Tango on 16th Street” is a downtempo tango that lends variety and a sense of coolness to the whole affair. Very jazzy. He revisits the style in “I Want to See You.” Frankly, nearly all the songs on this album are highly enjoyable, whether they recall the Big Easy, tangos, or Scaggs’ earlier work from the 1970s (“Love Don’t Love Nobody”). For me, the only misstep is “Full of Fire,” a disco tune that brings back some of the music I liked least from the 70s.  Some folks may disagree.

In all, Scaggs and his compatriots do a great job in bringing back some musical styles that have largely disappeared from the current scene, but performing them in a way that doesn’t sound like Throwback Thursday.  They’re fresh, fun, and well, I can’t think of another appropriate f-word.  Highly recommended.

Personnel:  Boz Scaggs (vocals, rhythm and lead guitar), Steve Jordan (drums, percussion, background vocals), Willie Weeks (bass), Jim Cox (B-3, piano, pump organ, vibraphone), Al Anderson (chunk guitar, guitar figure), Douglas Rowan (baritone, tenor, and alto saxophones), Jim Hoke (baritone and tenor saxophones, bass clarinet, accordion, vibraphone, alto flute, woodwinds), Eric Crystal (tenor and alto saxophones, piano), Ray Parker, Jr. (electric and acoustic guitar, rhythm guitar), Bonnie Raitt (vocals, slide guitar), Seth Asarnow (bandoneon, pump organ), Clifford Carter (synth atmospherics), Conesha “Ms. Monét” Owens (background vocals), Tony Lindsay (background vocals), Fred Ross (background vocals), Reggie Young (guitar), Ben Cauley (trumpet), Jack Hale (trombone), Jim Horn (baritone saxophone), Lannie McMillan (tenor saxophone), Quentin L Ware, Jr. (trumpet), The Love Sponge Strings (strings, of course), Lucinda Williams (vocals), Paul Franklin (steel guitar).  Whew.
Tracks:  Rich Woman, I’m a Fool to Care, Hell to Pay, Small Town Talk, Last Tango on 16th Street, There’s a Storm Comin’, I’m So Proud, I Want to See You, High Blood Pressure, Full of Fire, Love Don’t Love Nobody, Whispering Pines.

Jeff Wanser

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Joe Overton. Clear Blue Sky.

Joe Overton.  Clear Blue Sky.
Self-produced, 2014.  Joe Overton:

Spring is in full bloom, pollen coats cars and sidewalks like newly fallen snow, and my eyes are nearly swollen shut from allergies.  What better time to listen to some country music? I clearly recall Joe Overton (Class of 2007) as one of the more intense music fans on campus at the time, and he along with a few others played around campus a lot and regularly pawed through our music collection in the library. Since he left us he has been doing many things, including studying and teaching fiddle and banjo, community organizing against mountaintop removal, and being a member of two bands, The Party Line (Nora Jane Struthers’ band), and his own Clear Blue Sky. The two bands share personnel. This is Joe’s first album as leader, and he wrote all the songs.

Overton has a voice that seems suited for bluegrass, a high lonesome sound, but that’s not the only style he presents here. He combines country with occasional forays into rockabilly, with a touch of folk. In other words, he’s Americana, a term to which he probably would not object. The opening track, “Trouble,” is a strong one, with great hooks, interesting lyrics, and some great fiddle and pedal steel featured. The rockabilly side is presented in “Introvert Boogie,” a style reminiscent of Charlie Feathers, with a bit of Chuck Berry thrown in. This is an especially good tune, since it really goes back to roots, rather than being derivative of later revivals. Beautiful electric guitar work is featured in “Hook,” which has a heavy honky-tonk feel, drinks and all. “Front Door” has a bit more of a bluegrass sound to it, although the band doesn’t feature the heavy-duty harmonies usually required in the style, and the tune takes more of a country turn toward the middle. If you’re looking for a real weeper, try “Tallest Tree,” which displays both Overton’s fine vocals and Buck Reid’s excellent pedal steel. “Foundation” is similar in style, and we encounter similar strengths, and the fine, sensitive lyrics manage to include country music touchstones such as guitar strings and whiskey without being forced. The last track, “Start Over,” engages with Overton’s environmental ethic, and in using his lower register, he gives the song some gravity.  

This is a very enjoyable album, filled with memorable songs and excellent musicianship, tied together by Overton’s fine vocals and vision. Clear Blue Sky is a worthwhile effort, and I recommend it highly. Good start, Joe.  Let’s hear some more.

Personnel:  Joe Overton (vocals, guitar), Nora Jane Struthers (harmony vocals), Josh Vana (electric guitar), Christian Sedelmyer (fiddle), Drew Lawhorn (drums, percussion), Nick Disebastian (bass), Buck Reid (pedal steel).
Tracks:  Trouble, Horizon, Kind, Introvert Boogie, Hook, Front Door, Tallest Tree, Ballad of the Objectivist, To My Foundation, Start Over.

Jeff Wanser