Bentley’s Bandstand: February 2023
By Bill Bentley
The Animals, Retrospective. Of all the British Invasion bands of the 1960s, the Animals might just be the one who didn’t really receive the raving credit they deserve. Because their early songs had such an overwhelming blues base, it was like the Newcastle aggregation wasn’t in the same sphere as the Beatles, Rolling Stones and others. But when push comes to pull, Eric Burdon and his stellar sidekicks could play circles around most of the competition. Beginning with their very first hit, a haunting cover of “House of the Rising Sun,” the Animals dove straight into the deep end with songs like “I’m Crying,” “Boom, Boom” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” And that was just the start. Though the quintet wasn’t known for their original songs, they had an eye for picking stone cold groovers to cover: “It’s My Life,” “Don’t Bring Me Down,” “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and more. Near the end of the run with the mostly-original members–founding member organist Alan Price had already bailed–the Animals recorded an underground wowzer that lives to this day: “Inside-Looking Out. ” Written by Ertic Burdon and bassist Chas Chandler, who would go on to work with the Jimi Hendrix Experience in their earliest days–the track still is a chillbumper that harkens to a future of harrowing gloom and possible redemption. And that’s all on the first disc of this vinyl release of the 2004 original compilation. Disc 2 heads into Animals territory Part II, which is one of no small exhilaration, along with the ending track when Eric Burdon jumped onboard Los Angeles rootsy-rocker War for their mondo smash “Spill the Wine.” In the song, Burdon describes himself as the “overfed long-haired leaping gnome” he always ways, and seals the deal as one of the very finest rock singers of all-time, not to mention a bandleader non pareil. Inside-looking out.
The Arcs, Electronic Chronic. Some bands should always remain a mystery. It gives their music a hazy atmosphere that lets the sound percolate in an ozone of guessing and allows the songs to not have to make total sense. The Arcs are, naturally, led by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, and are one more notch in the man’s belt for total world domination. Bands and recording projects seem to sprout from Auerbach’s active band like mushrooms after a rain. Which is a good thing when the results are as grand as The Arcs, because this is one killer outfit. While loosely soul-based, the wailing lead guitars, chanting vocals and pounding drums lead to a voodooesque spirit that could have been born on the corner of Decatur and Iberville in the French Quarter. There is something semi-sinister in the air when the band kicks into songs like “Keep On Dreamin’,” “Califone Interlude,” “Behind the Eyes” and “Love Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” While Dan Auerbach handles almost all the lead vocals, his expressive voice has taken on a new back ‘o town vibration which lets the rock star grow brand new tentacles for singing. It’s all such a refreshing affair that it really does feel like a new day has been born and it’s time for the band to come in and teach everyone the Funky Penguin. With keyboard ace Leon Michels onboard the band as a sidekick there is no limit to what the group can do. To keep on the good foot, The Arcs don’t get tied down to just one style, either. They can smooth out on “Heaven Is a Place” that has the feel of Stevie Wonder on a romantic roll, and make listeners believe the past 50 years haven’t happened. This is music to paint a new picture for what is musically possible, and keep the dancefloor smoking when that time gets called for. And R.I.P. the mighty producer Richard Swift, who gets to show his chops one last time on percussion and background vocals, and sound like he’s having the time of his life in the process. Ring the bells.
Scott Billington, Making Tracks: A Record Producer’s Southern Roots Music Journey. When it’s time to find out how some unbeatable albums are made, Scott Billington’s book gets right to the core. The long-time Rounder Records utility batter has filled a lot of shoes during this 40-year with the country’s crown roots music label, and once Billington found his way to the producer’s chair in recording studios around America it was clear he was home. This ultra-entertaining tome gets down to the real nitty gritty on the making of inspiring sets by Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, James Booker, Solomon Burke, Johnny Adams, Irma Thomas, Charlie Rich, Bobby Rush and so many more that the ears start swiveling just thinking about them all. And that almost every single one that has Scott Billington’s name on it as producer is a stone-cold keeper. The way he tells the tale of all these accomplishments almost seems unreal, and the fact that the author’s memory is meticulously in full-on mode is a real historical wonder. The fact that so many of these accomplishments will never happen again makes this memoir beyond mere value. It is a glorious ride through the annals of some of the best American music of the past half-century. Hearing how treasured vocalist Johnny Adams got back on the good foot with Scott Billington’s direction and belief is awe-inspiring all the way, and reading the ins and outs of Irma Thomas and Charlie Rich recording sessions feels like the ultimate musical prize. Not only will there not be any more artists like this, there won’t be anyone in on the inner machinations of how things got done there to tell the tale with unerring glory like this author. Get It While You Can should be the subtitle of MAKING TRACKS, and someone should be cranking up a unique award to give the producer-author. What a world.
John Cale, Mercy. From the first song “Hello, There” on John Cale’s debut solo album VINTAGE VIOLENCE in 1970, to the last song “Out Your Window” on his brand new release MERCY is the sound of everything. The Welshman who made his way to New York and soon Lou Reed to co-found the Velvet Underground in 1965 is the kind of musical career that’s been very rare in the past 60 years: it is one where experimentation is as valued as commercial success, and the end point of creating music is to spur the mind and soul into new territory. No one, repeat no one, has done that finer or more consistently than John Cale. His early efforts with Tony Conrad and LaMonte Young right through to collaborations on this new album with Weyes Blood, Animal Collective, Fat White Family and others is like a roadmap for exciting journeys to expansive new worlds. Cale’s ability to mix the dark with light sounds like entering a unique cathedral of sound, one that has a consistent way of offering outre sonics combined with those that make up the entire history of music. The classical crashes into the modernistic in ways that haven’t been considered before, with the end result being slightly blown minds that stay tethered just enough so no one gets lost in space. This man’s music really is something different, which can be heard on every song here. It’s probably not easy staying at the forefront of an ever-changing frontier, but that is the avant garde’s gig, and for John Cale there is no doubt he would have it any no other way. This is someone who is an equal for anyone who ever remotely called rock & roll home, and clearly doesn’t have much use for rearview mirrors. It’s what remains to be discovered that continually piques this musician’s deepest interest, and following him into that terrain will be the job de jour. The gift continues.
Bill Frisell, Four. If there is a guitarist for all seasons, surely it is Bill Frisell. He has appeared on dozens and dozens of albums as a sideman, and it is in the musician’s own releases where his heart and soul always shines through the brightest. Maybe that’s because these are the recordings where Frissel’s original compositions are front and center. On the new album FOUR, the guitar–whether it’s the electric, acoustic or baritone–invents its own language, weaving in and out between his fellow players who are just riding the waves of a solo affair. It is probably a safe bet at this point to say that Bill Frisell really exists in his own world. He never overplays his parts to the point of no return. Instead, he is almost stealth-like in how he approaches the instrument. It rips and runs through some songs, and on others seems to exist on thin air. There really is no one like this musician, and FOUR rates at the very highest of his recorded achievements. Joined here by Gregory Tardy on saxophone and clarinet, Gerald Clay on piano and drummer Jonathan Blake, these 13 Frissell originals bring light into every space and make the world feel like a much more compelling place than it can sometimes be these days. Even when things edge close to the darkness, it never appears as a lost cause, but more like a puzzle to be solved. Modern music is still a saving grace on the planet and as long as Bill Frisell offers his contribution to the ethos it will continue to be a gift of no small proportion. Turn it up.
Mary Gauthier, Dark Enough To See the Stars. It’s time to come right out and say it: Mary Gauthier is one of the great songwriters of the past 40 years, right up there with Townes Van Zandt, Billy Joe Shaver and John Prine. While she might not have received equal acclaim like those three musical titans, it doesn’t make her any less worthy. Every one of Gauthier’s past albums has been stellar. The songs completely capture the pathos of trying to live a righteous life in a place and time that tends to work against that very prospect. Luckily the woman doesn’t flinch an inch from capturing the long odds against ecstasy, and keeps right on going in that uphill walk to the promised land. DARK ENOUGH TO SEE THE STARS just might be Mary Gauthier’s grandest attempt yet to actually pull a few stars down from the dark sky to show us all the way to a joyous landing spot. It’s all about capturing the true grandness of turning brokenness into grandeur. The woman’s voice has a street-smart seduction that wraps the hardest truths in bows of beauty, and never stops for self-pity or self-suffering. Instead, the Southern troubadour takes on all the hardships life can throw her way and manages to end up standing on top of a mountain of love. There is no other way to say it: these are soul-shuddering songs for the ages. “About Time” is one that looks at the cosmos of despair swirling right outside the window and realizes life can only be lived knowing the end might not be as righteous as the beginning, but time has a way of settling the shortcomings and offering a solace not to be forgotten. Album-ender “Till I See You Again” appears as a fevered feeling of love that promises all good things may yet arrive before our last breath, and if not, then the end could come as such a surprise it doesn’t really matter anyway. The best news is that Mary Gauthier lives and writes and sings among us, and that might just be enough after all. Do not miss.
Jim Keller, Spark & Flame. For the past 40-plus years Jim Keller has been playing the kind of rock & roll that exists almost outside time. It is always of such relevance that it feels timeless. One of Keller’s aces is his time in Tommy Tutone, where he co-wrote “867-5309/Jenny” and a lot of other great songs. When it was time to strike out on his own that is exactly what Keller did. On SPARK & FLAME, it feels like the musician has totally found his musical legs, and with co-writer Byron Isaacs, who is also a member of the Lumineers, has created the kind of album which announces a fully-formed new presence. Maybe that’s because with a partner like Isaacs Jim Keller has found the perfect co-writer that is equally adept at creating an irresistible collection of songs that explore different areas but are never less than inspired. From tinges of The Band right through to the most modern singer-songwriters, Keller has a hard-to-peg style on songs like “Falling Down,” “Bells of Notre Dame,” “Learning to Crawl” and “When You’re a Rock” that offer an easeful intensity of emotion. It is something that takes decades to learn and perform, and now that this musician has found it there is a very good chance he won’t forget how to get there. Which means that from now on it would be a mistake to miss any music Jim Keller makes. He has found his place, and is not going back. The final song on SPARK & FLAME, “Even Angels Have to Fall,” is a chillbumper of big proportions, and the perfect way to say what so many struggle with: standing up to the hardest parts of family life, the ones that hurt and never really go away. Now it’s the music’s turn to help say it all. Fight the fight.
Brad Meldhau, Your Mother Should Know. On first reading, the idea of jazz pianist par excellence Brad Meldau recording a whole album of Beatles songs didn’t seem quite so compelling. Even the fact that Meldau is one of the great living pianists, it was still a stretch to imagine how he might bring a new, all-instrumental life to Fab 4 classics like “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Golden Slumbers” and for a noted musical connection, David Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” which first featured Rick Wakeman on piano. Leave it to Meldau, though, to make the program of Beatles’ beauties take on a whole new life in the pianist’s new interpretations. Recorded live in Paris two years ago, this is music of the spheres like it’s never been heard. The melodies come through loud and clear from the original recordings, but in the end sound almost as if Brad Meldau had written the songs himself. That’s how strong his own performance of songs that have been heard millions of times before sound now. Anything less than that achievement would have been somewhat ludicrous, but luckily the exact opposite has been attained. These really feel now like songs of the 2020s, and that is most likely due to Paul McCartney, John Lennon and on George Harrison’s “If I Needed Someone” the amazingness of their songwriting. The Beatles set the standard for rock & roll in the 1960s, just as Brad Meldau is raising the bar for jazz, or whatever word best defines his style at present. Here, there, everywhere.
Holly Montgomery, Sorry for Nothing. As a founding member of Mustangs of the West, who once went by simply The Mustangs, bassist Holly Montgomery has clearly had a lot in her head and heart the past few years. Luckily she decided to put it all into a blasting new album, SORRY FOR NOTHING, that is nothing less than a major score. Montgomery’s new music is an overwhelming achievement, one of the great releases of recent years with such a sense of moving grace that it really does feel like it is music that will last a very long time. With an unrelenting rock & roll attack, Montgomery’s vocals show she has both feet standing on rock & roll ground and an attitude for life that gives her a 360-degree view on the ups and downs of America, no matter where home might be. And though some of the songs might see the darker end of the street, there is also an everlasting element of hope on songs like “Shatter,” “Burn It Down” and “I Got Damage” that promises Holly Montgomery is someone who keeps the bright side of the road in sight through her music–no matter what. Producer, guitarist and keyboard player Buddy Speir keeps the momentum at such a high level there is never room for wavering. This is rock meant to take the listener by the soul and shake things up. And on the two songs, “All for Nothing” and “Looking for Lancelot” that Holly Montgomery produces herself, she shows she’s got the goods working the other side of the control console. Though the album came out in late 2022, it feels so strong that it could easily be a contender for among the best of this new year. Burn it up.
Joe Louis Walker, Weight of the World. This bluesman walks the walk, kicking ass and taking names whenever he takes the bandstand. Joe Louis Walker has been carving his name in the blues world for decades, playing like his life depends on it. Walker asks no favors and expects no shortcuts. Instead, he writes songs, sings them and fires up his electric guitar like very few can do these days. The blues isn’t getting any younger, which makes artists like Joe Louis Walker all the more valuable. WEIGHT OF THE WORLD just might be the finest album this man has made. It grooves from style to style with such strength and grace it really does feel like a lifetime achievement. The man can go from slow stunners, New Orleans-inflected rhythmathons, Memphis bulldog-beat soul and everything in-between. There are keepers here that reflect on the plight of the modern world, pull in the gospel goodness and just flat-out get-it-and-hit-it. It’s not hard to spot the very special place Joe Louis Walker is in. Classic collections like WEIGHT OF THE WORLD don’t just accidentally happen. It takes a lot of things to line up and still the need of timelessness to make it all work. Which is exactly what occurs all over these songs, in such a way that this is a veteran who gets to strut up to the front of the line on this irresistibly fine release. There are plenty of reasons this man is in the Blues Hall of Fame and six-time Blues Music Award winner. With noted producer Eric Come, this dynamic duo brings it all back home in 2023. Blues or lose.
Bentley’s Bandstand: February 2023