Quickies: New Release Roundup 2010, Vol. 5

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Things could be looking up for Grace Potter & The Nocturnals.

by Pico

It’s been a whole three months since we last discussed a batch of sparkling new releases that are targeted for wider audiences. That’s such a long span that a few of the half dozen records yakked about below had been in circulation for several months, now. If you hadn’t heard them yet, then maybe Ol’ Dad’s perspective on them might be what you you’re looking for before taking the plunge.

And if you’re old, too, then selections 2 through 5 will make you think you’re back in school again. They are bookended by newer acts who could relate well musically speaking to the older ones. There will be no jazz or any of those other weird genres in this chapter of Quickies; it’s all straight line rock or blues rock, with few frills and no compromises. Here are Volume 5’s super six selections:

1. The Black Keys Brothers: Listen to the BK’s prior albums after taking in this one and you can appreciate how far this duo has come without sacrificing a single strand of their core sonic makeup. What started out as a crunchy distillation of Howlin’ Wolf and Junior Kimbrough has broadened out to soak in the sounds of Tony Joe White, CCR, and Crazy Horse. But the two don’t merely dwell in 1970, they revel in it and recreate it in what is now their own imprint. The songs all take on a psychedelic shimmer, but modern advances allow you hear what’s going on behind the paisley curtain. Except for “Tighten Up,” Danger Mouse is not behind the mixing board on this one as he was for the prior Attack And Release, but they took the lessons learned about tone and textures and amazingly, even improved upon it. Each song has an element of fuzz but spins a variety of tales. “Black Mud” is a haunting recasting of Neil Young’s “Down By The River,” complete with aching lead guitar lines, it just needed vocals. The big swagger of the spare funk tune “Sinister Kid” has them (“I’ve gotta tortured mind and my blade is sharp/A bad combination….in the dark”), while the Keys still show strong fealty to the blues in Delta-derived numbers like “Next Girl” and “She’s Lone Gone.” They tackle Jerry Butler’s 1968 hit “Never Give You Up” in a respectful rendition sounds like it was recorded about the same time as the original. Dan Auerbach’s chameleon vocals and songcraft are as effective as ever, and Patrick Carney’s sturdy but nuanced backbeats also serve to make each song memorable. Six albums in, and this band continues to get better.

2. Roky Erickson With Okkervil River True Love Cast Out All Evil: Roky Erickson’ spotty career that goes back to his time with the 13th Floor Elevators in the mid 60s, and he’s recorded intermittently since then. He got seriously derailed by some harrowing stays at mental institutions—electroshock treatments and the whole works—and schizophrenia, which was left untreated for long periods of time. But True Love Cast Out All Evil, his first disc in fourteen years heralds a late-career comeback which, on artistic terms at least, is as remarkable as the rediscovery of long lost Delta blues singers like Son House and R.L. Burnside. Using Okkervil River as a backing band and the band’s Will Sheff as a producer, the songs breath into the ears as a direct extension of the man singing them. Sheff deserves much credit in judiciously using effect, mostly sound collages, to add weight and mysticism to lift the songs above the crowded field of roots-rock/folk records, and Erickson homey but distinguished voice keeps the proceedings grounded. The controlled but passionate pleading on the heartbreaking “Please, Judge” alone testifies to that. Bookended by two crude Gospel recordings Erickson made while in one of those institutions, Erickson often refers directly or indirectly to those experiences. Much as James Taylor did on Sweet Baby James forty years ago, Erickson turned his struggles with mental strife into a comely and fascinating document that reaches out to listeners, not narrate dispassionately. Don’t miss out on this one.

3. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers Mojo: It’s been eight years since the last Heartbreakers album was issued (The Last DJ), although Petty gave us the “solo” Highway Companion in ’06 and the 3/5th’s Heartbreakers one-off group Mudcrutch in ’08. Still, Mojo means a new batch of recordings with his best backing band, and that’s well worth our attention. This one has been labeled their “blues” record, and while there are blues songs in it, like DJ, Petty & Co. don’t stick with the theme all the way through. That’s OK; this is killer group that sounds good playing anything and Petty writes like he’s still got the hunger. And frankly, he was and still is one of the great rock singers of all time, because of his ability to convey the right attitude without even trying. About half of the songs do qualify as blues, like the Chicago style blues of “Jefferson Jericho Blues,” and “Candy,” the convincing Leadbelly country folk blues of “U.S. 41” or the Canned Heat boogie of “Let Yourself Go.” Mixed in are psychedelic jams (“First Flash Of Freedom”), country (“No Reason To Cry”), Led Zeppelin hard blues-rock (“I Should Have Known It”) and even reggae (“Don’t Pull Me Over”). No matter what they tackle, it’s put through the TPATH filter. Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench shine on lead guitar and keys respectively, as usual, and this combo remains the most sophisticated garage band in America. Mojo is good enough for then to retain that distinction for twenty-something years running.

4. Steve Miller Band Bingo!: You probably didn’t even know that Steve Miller is still performing, and honestly, neither did I. Wide River was his last album, and that was from 1993. Bingo! isn’t an album of new material, though, as Miller chooses instead to play all r&b-based blues covers. Miller’s guitar chops have never been in question and he provides no reason to doubt him here, either. The focal point is not just there, though, it’s the overall feel-good boogie groove, particularly on Jimmy Vaughan’s Texas blues compositions like “Hey yeah” and “Don’t Cha Know.” Miller gives up the mic in several songs to blues harp player Norton Buffalo, who passed away not long after these recordings. Toss in some sublime Otis Rush and BB King covers (“Al
l Your Love (I Miss Loving)”, “Come On (Let The Good Times Roll”) and a guest appearance by Joe Satriani to trade licks with, and you have perhaps not a full-fledged comeback, but a blues covers album that’s easy to enjoy.

5. Peter Frampton Thank You Mr. Churchill:

Four years ago this seventies guitar icon Peter Frampton presented his first all-instrumental album Fingerprints and Nick was on the case for that one. Thank You Mr. Churchill, out since April 27, is a return to his bread-and-butter straight ahead rock. April 27 was just five days after Frampton turned 60, so it’s only fair to ask, how does this aging rocker sound doing the same kind of music he was doing when had a baby face and long, flowing locks? The answer is, he’s holding up quite well, thank you very much. His guitar licks remain tasty, his riffs are huge (the funky one on “I’ve Got It Bad” is Godzilla-sized) and his voice remains in fine form. If anything, he sings with more nuance than before. Even as this is a mainline Frampton record, it’s also a very personal one. The title cut expresses gratitude to the great British P.M. for standing up to aggression which made his existence possible. Songs like “Vaudeville Nanna And The Banjolele” and “Black Ice” are autobiographical, while “Asleep At The Wheel” and “Restraint” casts an angry eye at the excesses and immorality of (American) society today. And right in the middle of the record is a delightful two-part instrumental “Suit Liberte A. Megumi B. Huria Watu,” an acoustic-led rewrite of “Sleepwalk” that morphs into a burning electric blues-rocker. Like the best of the Framptons, Churchill showcases Frampton’s firm command of songcraft, vocals, and of course, dazzling fretwork. There’s only a couple of average cuts and no clunkers, but the rest is killer. This ol’ chap’s still got it.

6. Grace Potter & The Nocturnals Grace Potter & The Nocturnals: Grace Potter & The Nocturnals started as a regional (New England) act, and through relentless touring and just an occasional album, has steadily built a following. Signed to a big label, Hollywood Records, frontwoman Potter and her cohorts appear about ready to break out, like Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band in 1975. This self-titled release is the second with Hollywood, but there’s more buzz with this one than This Is Somewhere from three years back. Their first album Original Soul was about as meek as a Norah Jones record. By the time of Somewhere, the band has positioned itself as a down-the-line rock band. Now, though, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals struts its rock with more of a cocksure attitude. The guitars are thicker, but it all really starts with Ms. Potter herself: she squeals, screams, moans and sighs her way through songs. The thing is, she’s got the chops to pull it off, and the normally good vocals of Potter are outright liberated on this release. Behind her, the Nocturnals have a new bass player (Catherine Popper) and rhythm guitarist (Benny Turco) to join drummer Matt Burr on drums and Scott Tournett on lead guitar. It’s a band dressed to kill. The leadoff track “Paris (ooh La La)” is the kind of gut puncher that Joan Jett would have loved to have thought of first, so much so that the rest of the album doesn’t measure up. But several songs do stand up fine on their own, like “Medicine,” “That Phone” and the reggae-inflected “Goodbye Kiss.” There’s still room left for ballads, but this time, they’re somewhat flaccid. As a whole though, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals has enough punch to widen their audience. It remains to be seen if this is the big breakout album they’ve worked years toward, though. If not this time, I feel that their day is still coming.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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