Music Reviews: John Fred, Caroline Spence, Abbie Gardner, the Muffs, Delbert McClinton, Abigail Lapell, and Marc Jordan & Amy Sky
By Jeff Burger
John Fred and His Playboy Band, Judy in Disguise with Glasses. “Judy in Disguise with Glasses” was the best and worst thing that ever happened to the late John Fred in his music career. It was the best because the song, whose title played off that of the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” gave him and his Playboy Band a huge international hit in 1967—so huge that it displaced the Fab Four’s own “Hello, Goodbye” at the top of the Billboard pop chart. But the song marked the group as a novelty act, a label it couldn’t shake, and it never scored another Top 40 hit.
That’s unfortunate because, as this new collection demonstrates, the Baton Rouge, Louisiana–born Fred and his versatile accompanists had a lot to offer. In addition to the big hit, the set includes numbers that variously recall the Animals (“Out of Left Field”), early garage rockers like the Blues Magoos (“Off the Wall”), and the Rascals (“Hey Hey Bunny”).
Caroline Spence, True North. You might be inclined to label this beautiful album “folk” or “Americana,” but from the first notes of its first song, Caroline Spence’s rock sensibility is apparent—not surprising, given that the Nashville-based singer-songwriter cites such influences as Oasis and the alt-rock band Nada Surf.
Spence says that while recording True North, she came home from the studio each day “totally emotionally exhausted,” which is also not surprising considering the material, which draws heavily on personal experience and addresses such subjects as love, loss, and commitment. Bookended by songs that reference the late poet Mary Oliver, this is a literate and affecting collection that’s as listenable as it is thought-provoking. Spence, who wrote or co-wrote everything here, shows herself to be a talented lyricist and melodist, as well as a vocalist who has what it takes to be her own best interpreter.
Abbie Gardner, Dobrosinger. New Jersey–based Abbie Gardner attended her first bluegrass music festival when she was three and has probably been listening to jazz since at least that age because her father is a swing jazz and Dixieland musician. You can also hear pop and blues influences on this latest album, which features such self-penned and co-written love songs as “Only All the Time” and “See You Again,” plus a couple of covers, including a well-sung album-closing rendition of “You Belong to Me,” the ballad that produced hits for Jo Stafford in 1952 and the Duprees in 1962.
The Muffs, Really Really Happy. The Omnivore label continues its reissue program of albums by the Muffswith this expanded edition of 2004’s excellent 17-track Really Really Happy, the Southern California group’s fifth LP. The two-CD set adds 22 bonus numbers, including 16 demo recordings by the late Kim Shattuck, the outfit’s vocalist and songwriter. Its music is commonly labeled punk-rock, but like such bands as Blondie and the Go-Gos, the Muffs had a lot more to do with pop than they did with, say, the Clash or Sex Pistols. The instrumentation may be stripped down, but the songs are upbeat—exuberant, actually—and loaded with hooks.
Delbert McClinton, Outdated Emotion. “I’ve always wanted to do an album of the songs that influenced me the most,” says Delbert McClinton. “It’s important music from another time.” Indeed, it is, and the now 81-year-old Texas blues-rocker does it justice on this spirited collection, which makes room for five excellent McClinton originals alongside covers of 11 vintage classics. Among the numbers in the latter group are Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally,” Lloyd Price’s “Stagger Lee,” Jimmy Reed’s “Ain’t That Lovin You,” and three songs associated with the great Hank Williams: “Jambalaya,” “Move It on Over,” and “Settin’ the Woods on Fire.” The album’s title notwithstanding, music like this will never be outdated.
Abigail Lapell, Stolen Time. The fourth album from Toronto-based singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Abigail Lapell, her follow-up to 2019’s Getaway, was worth the three-year wait. Like its predecessor, the new CD features her sublime vocals and fingerstyle guitar, accordion, harmonica, pump organ, and piano work; a backup band sparingly adds such instruments as the viola, French horn, cello, trumpet, sax, and pedal steel. The moody, well-crafted songs—which at times recall 1960s British folk acts such as Fairport Convention and Pentangle—include “Land of Plenty,” which Lapell wrote in response to Donald Trump’s Muslim ban; “Ships,” which incorporates a memorable, uncredited sax interlude; and the atmospheric, dreamy title cut.
Marc Jordan & Amy Sky, He Sang She Sang. Marc Jordan and Amy Sky are a married Toronto couple who have crafted many pop and rock songs for artists like Rod Stewart, Cher, Bonnie Raitt, Chicago, and Olivia Newton-John. Both of them have also had successful recording careers, though until now there has been little recorded evidence of how well their voices blend. You’ll find lots of that on He Sang She Sang, their first album-long collaboration, which, in addition to a half-dozen originals, includes likable covers of such songs as Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’,” Smokey Robinson’s “Ooh Baby Baby,” Willie Nelson’s “You Were Always on My Mind,” and the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.”
The couple also perform a deft cover of Frank Loesser’s classic “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” Its lyric has been criticized by listeners who feel it depicts its male character inappropriately pressuring its female character to stay the night, but Jordan and Sky put a new slant on the number by switching the roles: in their version, it’s the man who’s saying he really needs to go home while the woman keeps urging him not to leave.
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.