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Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars

Springsteen is almost 70 years old and this is his 19th studio album.  He is still very much in the game. This is an outstanding album – it may be his best since The Rising in 2002 and rivals his glory days. This is an interesting tweak on the Springsteen sound: an orchestra and pedal steel. Where Bruce used to use the E Street Band or synths, he is now using an orchestra and pedal steel. It does not sound saccharine, it sounds sweet.  This really works.

Writing an autobiography and doing Broadway was clearly inspiring for The Boss. I have said this before about acts like the Stones, McCartney, Simon, and Dylan – these late-career masterpieces are proof that guys like Springsteen are true rock stars.

The album is filled with great songs and gorgeous arrangements.  Bruce’s voice is an easy cowboy-drawl and is the perfect match for this batch of songs.

Bruce finds the same down and out characters on the west coast as he found on the Jersey shore. The location has changed the details, but the essence remains the same: finding a moment of glory – celebrating Saturday night and ignoring Monday. From “Sleepy Joe’s Cafe:”

I come through the door and feel the workweek slip away

See you out on the floor and Monday morning’s a million miles away

Per his website:

…the album draws inspiration in part from the Southern California pop records of the late ’60s and early ’70s.

I couldn’t agree more.  The songs have the feel of the great Jimmy Webb hits of that period.  I can’t help but hear Glen Campbell singing these songs – I think Bruce would be alright with that.

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J.S. Ondara – Tales Of America

I became aware of J. S. Ondara because of the Kenyan’s Minnesota connection. He came to Minnesota to find the muse of Bob Dylan. He was twenty and not even a serious musician. He dove in headfirst and six years later he has a major label LP release. I won’t even try to recap the story – it is better told other places. But if it was fiction, it would be preposterous.

The album is gorgeous, Ondara has a high ethereal voice. The instrumentation is subtle: Ondara on acoustic guitar and some songs have additional acoustic instruments and harmony vocals. These additions are provided by some heavy hitters: Andrew Bird, some of the guys from Dawes and producer Mike Viola (Ryan Adams, Jenny Lewis, Mandy Moore, etc.). Viola’s light touch production is perfect.

The songs are pop-folk with great hooks, think of a contemporary Simon and Garfunkel. This is an amazing debut, it is confident and mature. It completely contradicts the narrative of Ondara’s biography.

Mill City Sound and The Marcus King Band – Carolina Confessions

In a recent post, I talked about how we used to discover music before the internet. I mentioned radio, magazines, reputations and cover art. I forgot another valuable source: the record store clerk.

The stereotypical record store clerk is so aloof that you are afraid to ask about a selection for fear of judgment: “your music taste sucks!” But when you find a friendly and knowledgeable record store clerk you are golden. They will provide you with amazing recommendations and great conversation.

I was recently at Mill City Sound in Hopkins Mn to pick up the latest Black Keys record. Naturally, I needed to dig through the new used crates. The record store clerk noted that he had the same Chris Robinson Brotherhood T-shirt as I was wearing. When I got to the checkout we started to talk about music and he mentioned (no raved) about the Marcus King Band. Given my T-shirt, he was confident I would love it. Well, I was not going to pass that up. “So you got a copy?” I asked. He jumped out from behind the counter and headed to the crates. He whipped out a copy. I took it up to the counter and a different guy had now taken over the register. He starts to ring it up and raves what a great record Carolina Confessions is. That was some serious hype. I left the store on a very positive note and went home to give the album a spin hoping the LP would live up to the hype. It lives up to the hype.

Marcus King has sweet sandpaper vocals, somewhere between Gregg Allman and Janis Joplin. Oh and he plays guitar too – regular and pedal steel! Did I mention he is a songwriter? King was 20 when he recorded this album – King is a wunderkind.

Per the band’s website:

“Marcus King has been writing songs and performing onstage for half his lifetime, delivering a southern fried brand of blues and psychedelia inspired by rock n’ roll…King is a Blue Ridge Mountain boy, born and raised in Greenville, South Carolina. A fourth-generation musician, he traces his lineage back to his fiddle-playing great grandfather, while his grandfather was a fiddler and guitarist. His dad is Marvin King, is a singer/guitarist who has toured nationally since the ‘70’s with various artists as well as his own group, Marvin King and Blue Revival. Since he was a teenager, he’s been trading licks with famous fans and mentors Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks whenever their paths have crossed.”

On first listen, my response was this is a nice Allman Brothers inspired blues-rock. But it did not knock me out. King’s performance is subtle and nuanced. It reveals the fire on repeated spins. By the fourth spin, I am loving this.

The Marcus King Band sounds like a big band, but it is merely a six-piece – again from the band’s website:

“…drummer Jack Ryan, bass player Stephen Campbell, trumpeter/trombonist Justin Johnson, sax player Dean Mitchell and keyboard player DeShawn “D-Vibes” Alexander—create a blistering, yet soulful unit that has honed their synergy through endless touring.”

If you like guitar based jamming blues-rock you are going to like The Marcus King Band – Carolina Confessions.

Black Keys – “Let’s Rock”

The Black Keys evolved from a little indie rock band to an arena band. They have a simple formula: bluesy garage rock with big riffs and chugging rhythm. It has gotten more sophisticated and a little slicker over time, but the Black Keys has never really strayed from the basic concept. This new album tosses off some of the slickness and sophistication – it is back to basics. Gone is the fussiness of the Danger Mouse production of the last three albums (don’t get me wrong I loved that sound and those albums, but it was time to move on).

There are no innovations here, just good rocking music. The dirty riffs have just enough sweetening (a keyboard here, a backup vocalist there) to go down easy. The Black Keys remind me of AC/DC – not that they sound like them – but that they have found a signature groove and consistently delivered quality rock music for nearly twenty years now. This is just another reliable chapter in the Black Keys story.

If you like big dumb guitar rock from the 70s (James Gang, ZZ Top, and T-Rex for example) you will love “Let’s Rock.”

Kishi Bashi – Omoiyari

I can’t tell you how many times I have selected an album purely based on album art. Before the internet, I discovered new music on the radio, reading magazines and based on reputation.  Catchy cover art was also one of my ways of discovering new music. It happens less frequently in this streaming age, but it still happens. Kishi Bashi’s Omoiyari is a recent example.

I saw Omoiyari on a list of new releases on a streaming service and based on the cover art, I gave it a listen and instantly liked it. It reminded me of an acoustic version of Merriweather Pavilion by Animal Collective.

I did not know anything about Kishi Bashi until I bought the LP and read the liner notes. Evidently, he has been a solo loop based artist (as in one man band) and Omoiyari is his maiden voyage with a band (which he took to the extreme with a borderline chamber orchestra). The results of this experiment are spectacular.

Per the liner notes, Omoiyari is inspired by Bashi connecting the dots between Trump’s wall and the Japanese internment camps during World War II.  Bashi is the son of Japanese immigrants and states:

“As a minority I felt very insecure for the first time in my adult life in this country.”

Bashi wrote a set of songs exploring the emotional lives of the innocent Japanese-Americans unjustly incarcerated in internment camps. Struggling to find words to name this collection of songs, he chose a Japanese word: Omoiyari. The word roughly translates as empathy. But empathy short changes the nuance of the word. A better way of saying it is (again from the liner notes):

“…refers to the idea of creating compassion towards other people by thinking about them.”

I appreciate Bashi provided this background because I would never have picked up on this theme.  I am for the most part a music guy vs. a lyric guy.  I am more concerned with how words sound then by what they mean.

What I hear on the album (both in the music and the words) are longing and romance.  The music is beautiful.  Bashi has gorgeous melodies decorated in elaborate arrangements.  I hear Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, and Paul Simon. Bashi’s vocals are ethereal.  If you want a brief taste of the album, try the song “Summer of “42.”  If you like that you will enjoy the rest of the album. Bashi’s record label is Joyful Noise Recording – how perfect is that?

Black Pumas – Black Pumas

My son sent me the Black Pumas’ lead single, “Black Moon Rising” this past spring. I dug its retro soul groove. Although it was retro, it had a modern feel. The vocalist, Eric Burton has a gorgeous soul voice – in the tradition of Al Green, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye. He is inspired by those greats without sliding into impersonation. The production reminds me of Danger Mouse – a smattering of hip hop in the groove. On the strength of “Black Moon Rising,” I picked up the album when I saw it prominently displayed at Dusty Groove.

The rest of the album holds up to the lead single. It is slow burning soul – in the quiet storm tradition. Great vocals, sophisticated arrangements (that are not too busy) and tasty guitar work.

I was curious about the band’s back story. Per their Bandcamp site:

Black Pumas is led by the creative partnership between Grammy Award-winning guitarist / producer Adrian Quesada and 27-year-old songwriter Eric Burton. Burton is a relative newcomer who arrived in Austin in 2015 after busking his way across the country from Los Angeles, while Quesada has a storied reputation for playing in bands like Grupo Fantasma and Brownout while also producing acclaimed projects like 2018’s ‘Look At My Soul: The Latin Shade Of Texas Soul.’ 

After the two connected via friends in the Austin scene, they began to collaborate on a new sound that transmutes soul into something idiosyncratically modern. Reminiscent of Ghostface Killah and Motown in equal measure…

This is high quality contemporary soul music. Highly recommended. I can’t speak to the Wu-Tang reference (although as mentioned above, there is a hip hop flavor to the arrangements), I certainly endorse the Motown reference.

A bonus is the band has a great name and a very cool album cover – yes I am a sucker for that kind of stuff.

https://open.spotify.com/album/54SlWgNocRPhlZEFTYjOfW?si=gBuoX1Q_Qa2N35OSY1LcVw

Lady Gaga – Enigma and Piano & Jazz – Las Vegas Residency

When Lady Gaga came on the scene over ten years ago, I was unimpressed. She seemed like a Madonna wannabe. Then I saw her headline Lollapalooza in the summer of 2010 on her Monster Ball tour and I realized she was something special. I classify most pop stars into two categories: musicians (Dylan, Neil Young, Joni, Wilco, etc.) and performers (Madonna, Taylor Swift, etc.) and then there are the truly special: the musicians who are also performers (Prince, Elton, McCartney, Stones, etc.). Gaga is in that special category of musician/performers. I began to take her seriously.

Then in 2014, she showed us something more: a duet album with Tony Bennett. It was good and they had magic together. The album was mutually beneficial. It introduced Bennett to a younger audience (this was not his first rodeo – he had worked with Amy Winehouse a few years earlier) and he gave Gaga legitimacy as a jazz singer.

When it was announced last year the Gaga was going to do a Las Vegas residency (and this was before A Star Is Born) my wife immediately scored tickets through Gaga’s fan club. This was a must-see show. If there ever was a pop star made for Vegas, it is Lady Gaga. But the bonus was she was also going to do a handful of jazz shows to spice things up.

We got tickets to the “regular” Gaga show (titled Enigma) and the Piano & Jazz show. We recently made the trip to Sin City to see the shows. The Enigma show was great, but the Piano & Jazz was transcendent.

The Enigma show was classic Gaga playing her hits. It had the costumes, the dancers, the pep talks, the histrionics, that is, it was a spectacle. Like the Joanne Tour in 2017, the highlight for me was when she just got real with just piano and voice.

When we showed up the next night for the Piano & Jazz show there was a noticeably different vibe – an older and more serious audience. The stage was like a swing era bandstand. This was going to be about the music and not the show.

When Gaga appeared she was dressed elegantly, yet over the top – she is Gaga and has standards to maintain. She proceeded to belt out the great America songbook with grace and charm with her orchestra. After a few songs, she went to the piano and reimagined her mega-hit “Poker Face” with just piano and voice – complete with a narrative on the background of the song. Then it was time for a costume change and we were entertained with a video monologue where Gaga gushed about her love for jazz. She repeated this pattern four times with a few surprises.

Surprise number one was in the second set when she invited a friend on stage: Tony Bennett! You know that expression “the crowd went wild?” Well, the audience went something north of wild – it was full tilt crazy. They sang a couple of perfectly selected songs together: “The Lady Is A Tramp” and “Cheek to Cheek.”

The next set’s surprise was a brilliant big band jazz arrangement of her hit “Paparazzi.”

The final set opened with “La Vie En Rose” from A Star Is Born. Gaga introduced us to her featured soloist, trumpeter Brian Newman singing his signature song “Just A Gigolo.” Newman was brilliant all night.

The encore was a magnificent and ambitious arrangement of “Fly Me To The Moon” and of course “New York, New York” from the quintessential New Yorker.

I judge a concert as great if I get goosebumps. The Piano & Jazz show gave me goosebumps from beginning to end. I am guessing I have seen about 500 concerts over my 60 years and the Piano & Jazz show is one of the top five shows I have ever witnessed.

The full setlist is available here.