Music Reviews: Scott McCarl’s ‘Play On,’ Surrender Hill’s ‘Just Another Honky Tonk,’ Jose Ramirez’s ‘Major League Blues,’ and the Waymores’ ‘Stone Sessions’
Scott McCarl, Play On. Bassist and vocalist Scott McCarl is best known for his brief membership in the Raspberries, whose final power-pop album, 1974’s Starting Over, includes five tracks that he co-wrote. More than two decades later, however, McCarl reappeared with 1998’s Play On, an infectious solo outing that could easily be mistaken for a reunion set from his former group. At times, it also sounds reminiscent of the mid-sixties-era Hollies and Beatles. (Scott McCarl quotes the latter in his addictively hooked “Wait a Minute, Girl.”)
Though it would have been nice to have all 17 tracks from the original Play On in this identically named compilation, the new set does embrace nine of the earlier album’s best numbers plus four others, including a likable cover of Gerry & the Pacemakers’ “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” and “Doin’ It Right,” which McCarl recorded just last year. If you’re looking for ringing guitars, bright melodies, and British Invasion–style harmony vocals, this upbeat set will deliver what you’re after.
Surrender Hill, Just Another Honky Tonk in a Quiet Western Town. Husband-and-wife duo Robin Dean Salmon and Afton Seekins are Surrender Hill, whose latest release fills two CDs and features a total of 24 songs, all written (or in two cases co-written) by the couple. Salmon, who plays keyboards and guitars and handles production, once fronted a punk-rock band and cites motley influences ranging from Bob Wills and Marty Robbins to the Sex Pistols and the Clash. You won’t hear much evidence of the punk side of his background in the melodic, emotional Americana/Western music on Just Another Honky Tonk in a Quiet Western Town, however.
The setlist includes a few topical songs, such as “Love Your Neighbor,” which addresses the divisiveness in today’s America, and “Tumbleweed,” which reflects the isolation people have felt during the pandemic. More typical of the album, though, are numbers like “Cowboy Campfire Song,” “Heartache Goodbye,” and “Arizona Morning,” which focus on timeless subjects like love and nature.
The album—which incorporates a coterie of backup musicians and features pedal steel, fiddle, dobro, and organ—shows Salmon and Seekins to be talented songwriters and singers. Its consistent excellence is particularly impressive given its length.
Jose Ramirez, Major League Blues. Jose Ramirez’s name and the title of this album may lead baseball fans to conclude that the Cleveland Guardians’ third baseman is moonlighting. In fact, the CD is the work of a 34-year-old guitarist and vocalist of the same name, and the title cut pays tribute to some of the Chicago blues greats who influenced him. One of those greats, Jimmy Johnson, plays guitar on “Major League Blues,” which was recorded only five months before his death this January at age 93.
That song is one of eight originals on the CD, which also includes covers of Eddie Taylor’s “Bad Boy” and Magic Sam’s “My Love Is Your Love.” You can hear the influence of these guitarists, as well as Buddy Guy (with whom Ramirez has played) and Muddy Waters, in the instrumental portions of standouts like “Whatever She Wants,” a Bobby Bland–style ballad, and “My Love Is Your Love,” which is sung partly in Spanish and pays tribute to Ramirez’s Costa Rica homeland.
The Waymores, Stone Sessions. Up-tempo, lighthearted country music dominates this sophomore release from the Waymores, a musical and romantic duo consisting of Willie Heath Neal and Kira Annalise, both of whom play twangy acoustic guitar and sing—Neal in a deep baritone and Annalise in a pleasing alto. The title refers to pedal steel player Steve Stone, who produced, giving the album a live-in-the-studio sound though its parts were actually stitched together from recordings made at various times and places.
Featuring vocal interplay that recalls the playful duets between Johnny Cash and June Carter, the Waymores deliver an originals-dominated setlist that makes room for a few covers, including Austin, Texas–based singer/songwriter Johnny McGowan’s “When I’m Gone” and “Caught,” a Dale Watson song that features the composer on guitar. Other backup includes a drummer, bass and electric guitarists, and, on the Watson cut, a fiddler.
This is mainstream country—no “alt” prefix applies—with song structures that would fit right in on a Nashville radio station and lyrics about subjects like drinking and broken relationships. That said, it’s melodic, well sung, and high-spirited enough to prompt some toe-tapping.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.