Saturday, May 30, 2009

Another change....

I watched the final "Tonight Show...with Jay Leno" last night and the enormity of what is happening finally
hit me. I have watched "Tonight" religiously all my life...with Carson and then with Leno...It has been my nightly decompression ritual to have a good laugh and hear some new music before I turned in for 30 years. I am deeply saddened that Leno is going...and like many others I feel the brass at NBC has made a big mistake. That said, I accept that the show needs to appeal to a younger audience to keep advertising revenue coming in...and Conan is a proven talent with the younger crowds. I wish Conan the best...and I will continue to watch...

Seems Conan and I have something in common. We are both stepping away from jobs we never expected to have at a point in our lives and yet we excelled at them. We both start new jobs Monday with exceptionally large expectations on a much bigger stage. I have something in common with Leno as well...I finished out my old job on Friday. How strange is it that it worked out exactly this way?

I want to thank the wonderful people I worked with at Steak-n-Shake for their part in my success there as a restaurant manager. As I move on to bigger things as a General Manager at Krystal I reflect on my time at SNS and find I am humbly grateful to have been part of such a fine organization. We accomplished 7% positive comps in a down economy when our sister franchise restaurants averaged -5%. Do the math! That's 12% better than everybody! Thanks again!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A new instrumental

I am amazed once again...While noodling with my electric guitar I composed a jazz instrumental that I am very happy with. I'm going to have to get this recorded quickly so I don't forget it...

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Review-Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood-Live From Madison Square Garden DVD/CD

Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood were born to play together. 1969's short lived Blind Faith 'supergroup' proved it. This release simply reminds us of what we already knew. The musical synergy between these two is undeniable. From the first notes of "Had to Cry Today" we have Clapton and Winwood alive, energized and trading guitar lines like its 1969 all over again.

Clapton and Winwood continue to feed off of each other on Clapton's "Forever Man," and the Blind Faith song "Presence Of The Lord." Both are well known now as Clapton concert favorites but Winwood sounds as if he was born to sing them.

The musical synchronicity cannot be denied. Eric's played many of his own songs so many times he could easily phone it in...but he attacks his material with renewed Winwood's guitar and keys push this legend hard.

As the concert concludes, Clapton and Winwood play Hendrix's "Little Wing" and "Voodoo Chile." Here the fur really begins to fly. Winwood sings "Voodoo Chile" like a street corner bluesman and punctuates his bluesy phrasing with organ stabs that Clapton responds to with phenomenal guitar interplay.

Oh yeah...there's an interview too. These guys talk candidly about how this blessed reunion came about...but the real reason to buy this is the music...This is as good as it gets.

Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood-"Live at Madison Square Garden" no stars needed...if you don't buy this you clearly don't like good music.

Review-Better Than Ezra-Paper Empire

The alt-rockers from New Orleans are back. They are survivors, having endured 20 years in the music business with tremendous regional success but only a brief flirtation with national acclaim back in the alt-rock playground heyday of the early nineties. BTE has hardly been prolific..."Paper Empire" is BTE's sixth studio effort. This has actually worked in this band's favor-allowing demand to build before a new album hits the streets.

Kevin Griffin's unique voice still draws you in and his saccharine sweet melodies and simple, readily accesible lyrical themes make this album immediately identifiable as Better Than Ezra. Since I owned and enjoyed "How Does Your Garden Grow" back in the nineties I can't help but get a little nostalgic when I hear these guys. This album occasionally re-creates the magic of "How Does Your Garden Grow," but mostly continues the pop accessibility of "Before the Robots," BTE's last album (gasp!) four years ago.

There is plenty of dynamic range here, seemingly capturing the best of everything Better than Ezra has done before. We have the anthemic opener "Absolutely Still," the New-Wave-esque "Nightclubbing," the pepped up singalong of "All In," the sugary pop of "Black Light" and the subdued ballad "I Just Knew." It mostly works. This is a solid mainstream rock album of mid tempo rockers and ballads without much flashiness...this is hard to find in a major label release in 2009..and makes this album all the more appealing. It isn't ground breaking...but it is good music.

Better Than Ezra-Paper Empire 3-1/2 out of 5

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Review-Tori Amos-Abnormally Attracted to Sin

Maybe its the social networking sites to blame or possibly the reduction of artists vision to individual track downloads on i-tunes but our attention spans are not what they once were. Whatever the cause, around 2/3 of the way through the new Tori Amos’ album Abnormally Attracted to Sin, your interest will have waned.

Don't misinterpret me. I'm a fan. This is very close to being an excellent album. Unfortunately, like the Eagles' "Long Road Out of Eden" and other Tori Amos albums I could name it is simply too long. I think Tori's motivation here is a genuine attempt to add value to this collection...and to the listener. The problem is that the substandard material runs the risk of alienating fans before they hear all the good stuff.

The album kicks off on a high note. 'Give' is dark with a salacious offhand lyric that could be interpreted as anything from S&M to vampirism. The new single 'Welcome to England' is a return to form and could become a classic. This track signals Tori seems to be abandoning the concept album trappings that have framed most of her recent work. This album purports to be a study in sin...but the songs that work the best come from somewhere more personal. For eight tracks we get Tori at the top of her form, telling stories and deriving universal truths in well crafted songs.

Unfortunately this leads us to the 'bonus' disc. This is where things get uneven. I can forgive Tori some self indulgence simply because she has been one of the most profoundly original artists in music for the better part of 20 years. Still 'Police Me,' 'Abnormally Attracted to Sin,' and 'That Guy' should have been re-worked or canned. Things begin to pick up a bit with 'Fast Horse' and 'Mary Jane' which are fairly good quality lead ins for the closing moments of the album-and some of Tori's finest work...'Lady in Blue' is melodic with a lounge jazz-esque feel that echos recent Joni Mitchell albums-but doesn't suck. "Oscar's Theme" carries the album to a close with such understated sadness that is a perfect album closer. Had these two songs shown up a half an hour back, this would be the perfect Tori Amos album.

This is an album that would have been better with some self editing on the part of its writer. Incredibly, "Abnormally..." still has moments that hit the spot. Tori's songs here are often vague or lack cohesion and are certainly self indulgent...but this album still is a good example of the breadth and depth of Tori Amos' talent. Listen without prejudice and download the ones you like. I know I will.

"Abnormally Attracted to Sin" 3-1/2 out of 5

Friday, May 22, 2009

Review-Steve Earle-"Townes"

First I want to apologize to my readers for not posting my new reviews in a timely fashion these last couple of weeks. I have been extraordinarily busy working out a career change.

Steve Earle knew Townes. Perhaps no other artist knew him better. Townes' career influenced Earle's own rocky, drug addled career road with Earle ultimately emerging triumphant as a rebellious but legitimate American Troubadour. Townes as we all know was not so fortunate. Fortunately for us the music of Townes Van Zandt has shown itself to have tremendous staying power in spite of Townes' well publicized demons.

It is fitting at this point that Steve would go back to the songs that first influenced him and so many of us out there-"To Live is to Fly," "No Place to Fall," and the now iconic "Pancho and Lefty." All of these are represented here in versions so spare and understated it is easy to miss just how much passion went into this project. Every element here is in place to underscore the perfectly melancholy power of Townes' original lyrics. Earle utilized his son Justin Townes Earle and his wife Allison Moorer for support on subdued background vocals, other instrumental highlights include Shad Cobb's melancholy fiddle, Tim O'Brien's perfectly placed mandolin flourishes and Tom Morello's surprisingly perfect electric guitar accents.

The high point is "Lungs" which sends Earle's already raspy voice through an effects processor for an eerie effect that captures the sad place this song was written from. Add a spare acoustic guitar, hollow drums and a whining electric and you have the a perfect interpretation of this song's hollow desolation.

Perhaps Steve Earle has exorcised an inner demon or two with this collection of 15 of his mentor's best songs. Maybe he has made some peace with Townes' troubled legacy. He has certainly helped to elevate the work of Townes Van Zandt to an even more enduring status.

Steve Earle-"Townes" Four out of Five stars.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Review-Ben Harper-White Lies for Dark Times

Ben Harper's latest album breaks in a whole new band and a new sound. The eleven tracks of heavily amplified rock and blues here showcase perfectly the sound of Ben's new band Relentless 7. Relentless 7 is an Austin, TX based trio Harper discovered when a van driver chauffeuring Harper to an Austin gig insisted he hear a demo...and Harper loved it.

The first sound on the album is Harper's slide guitar bringing in "Number With no Name" an unapologetic rocker with an uplifting chorus that sets the tone for what is to come. There is quite a bit of diversity...a nod to U2 on"Up to You Now," with its delicate vocals and heavy rhythm and also a clear sixties British invasion influence on "Lay There and Hate Me." "Shimmer and Shine" is my absolute takes no prisoners from the first note to the last.

In spite of the amps being set on eleven, the lyrical content of this album is absolutely identifiable as Harper's. The slide guitar and vocals here are the elements that work the best...not surprisingly these have sustained Harper's career all along. The first half of this effort ranks with Harper's finest work. Unfortunately the second half isn't as well thought out and doesn't fare so well. I recommend downloading the first half and shelving the rest.

Ben Harper/Relentless 7-White Lies for Dark Times 3-1/2 out of 5

Review-Conor Oberst-Outer South

Last year Conor Oberst dissolved Bright Eyes and embarked on a solo career. His self titled debut last year of laid back folk rock glorifying life on the road was a tremendous shift from the much more dour and introspective Bright Eyes material. Now Oberst has gone one step further into the unfamiliar by making a true band album with his new traveling buddies The Mystic Valley Band. All the band members are involved with the songwriting...even the drummer manages two songwriting credits. This album was written very quickly on a short tour in Mexico and as you would expect these cuts are filled with a freewheeling sense of newfound possibilities. Unfortunately this also means that one too many songs is noticably self indulgent...not suprising since you have these guys kicking the songs back and forth in the studio before recording them quickly for posterity.

Oberst is always inclined to stick with his initial ideas and his instincts are usually correct. The loose vibe with everyone contributing actually enhances Conor's songs. For Example on "Slowly" we have Conor singing about taking life in the slow lane...lounging in the pool literally letting life pass him by. This laid back and happy vibe is so out of character for Oberst it may be a bit of a shock for Bright Eyes fans...but it does actually work. There is some angst to be found here..."White Shoes" is a desperate lover's plea and "Roosevelt Room" is a left wing political rant that borders on apocalyptic.

The rest of the band is not harboring any hitherto untapped songwriter genius. The songs contributed by the rest of the band are simply decent throwaways. As you might expect the albums strongest moments come when the band is sympathetically backing Oberst on his own songs. In fact that combination of that jangly sixties folk-rock and mini organ sound coupled with Oberst's new found preference for a more relaxed pace provide the album's best moments. Oberst is to be commended for putting his ego aside and letting the band have the proves he can be a nice guy...

"Outer South" 3 out of 5 stars An interesting experiment


Jewel's latest release entitled "Lullaby" is an album of children's lullabies released appropriately enough on Fisher-Price records. It would seem appropriate that she make a children's album since my single biggest ongoing criticism of Jewel has been the fact that she sings like a child. This was endearing and suited the material well when she was recording "Pieces of You" as a child herself.
Unfortunately in spite of recording more adult-level material, Jewel has resisted the urge to sing like a grown up and her faux emotional over-singing gets more ridiculous as time goes on...starting with the incredibly tedious "Spirit" and continuing progressively downhill from there. Lullaby unfortunately does not reverse the trend. The album is laden with typical Jewel arrangements with nothing standing out in any way. It all sort of blends together into a study in tedium.

Jewel-Lullaby 1 star out of five. Don't go near this one with a ten foot pole.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Other reviews in the works

I've got reviews in the works for some of today's other new releases including:

Conor Oberst-Outer South
Ben Harper and Relentless 7-White Lies for Dark Times

Music review-Yusuf

Yusuf's new CD "Roadsinger (To Warm You Through the Night)" is in stores today. In another lifetine, Yusuf sold 60 million records as Cat Stevens. The hit songs he recorded then, "Wild World," "Peace Train," "Moonshadow," "Morning has Broken," and "Father and Son" transcend time and place and have become iconic. The singer's quiet passion, tender lyrics and vocals are still very much in evidence on "Roadsinger," Yusuf's second album since resuming his music career in 2004.

Yusuf's last album "An Other Cup" had lots of Eastern musical influences that blended beautifully with the western folk idiom to produce a well woven tapestry. On "Roadsinger" Yusuf is performing straight up Western folk music with no chaser. This may be in part due to Yusuf's rediscovering Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Neil Young, Elton John and others while listening to a playlist on a transatlantic flight. These classic songs and artists reminded Yusuf how great the L.A. singer-songwriter sound had been and pushed him in this direction.

The production of "Roadsinger" is sparse with few overdubs resulting in an organic and slightly gritty feel. This serves the songs perfectly with immediacy and warmth coming through every performance.

The arrangements are what you'd expect from Yusuf...anchored with his tasteful understated guitar work and breezy vocals. A few songs are beautifully layered with cellos and violins or accented with horns.

The songs themselves show deep personal emotion. A beautiful love song such as 'Thinking about You" fits perfectly with "Roadsinger" a track that illustrates the power of music to bring people together. "To Be What You Must" is deep and philosophical and illustrates pointedly "To be what you must you must give up what you are." "World of Darkness" is the album's bleak moment...dwelling on just how much has gone wrong in recent years. The juxtaposition of this song with the other love songs and "All Kinds of Roses" a song about the beauty of nature all around is stark contrast...and absolutely right. "In This Glass World" illustrates the fragile nature of our world and gently nudges the listener toward the best solution-peace. This could be summed up as the albums overriding theme-peace-most importantly inner peace. This is clearly a classic album in waiting from the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens and will no doubt in time be as highly regarded as his iconic 70's catalog.

"Roadsinger"-Four and one half stars out of 5. Buy this one today!

Cinco de Mayo...and a great American song turns 40

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

On this day...May 5th 1969 CCR's Bad Moon Rising was released. The song would shoot to number two on the billboard charts and remain for 3 weeks. John Fogerty got the apocalyptic vibe of the song from a movie he watched called "The Devil and Daniel Webster." This is simply a classic jumps out of my radio speakers even now. You can really hear the influence of the Sun label artists on Fogerty here.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Review-The House on First Street-My New Orleans Story

I am a passionate lover of New Orleans. Since I moved to Georgia from there I've returned regularly as a visitor. I visit the city every chance I get and intend to return to live. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina left me heartbroken. Since the storm, I have made several trips to the city and while I am heartened by some developments, the slow pace of recovery in the hardest hit areas such as The Lower Nine, New Orleans East and Lakeview is very hard to see. Still my love for this great city and its incredible culture is unmoved.

It seems everyone has a Katrina story...most are absolutely incredibly awful and yet there remains that undercurrent of grit and toughness. I've read several of these post-Katrina memoirs and so I reached for "The House on First Street-My New Orleans Story" by Julia Reed with this in mind.

The book opens by presenting the author's lifelong love of the city-recounting a trip made as a teenager with friends and the wild times had by all. Next up is a quick Fast forwarding to 1991 when the author moves into a French Quarter apartment on Bourbon Street when she is working as a reporter covering the governors race that year. So far so good. Not surprisingly, like so many others she falls in love with New Orleans and decides to remain in the city. After a number of years in the city, she remarries at 42 and the newlyweds buy their dream Greek Revival home at First and Chestnut streets in the Garden District.

At this point it becomes apparent that Julia Reed is very well-to-do. It would be fair not to hold this against her but it becomes extraordinarily difficult to endure when she goes on at great length about the ineptitude of her contractor handling the restoration of her mansion. She embarks on an endless parade of local celebrity name dropping and referencing meals eaten and alcohol consumed in fabulous restaurants such as Galatoire's. Family members saunter in and out of the story with little or no introduction only to be gone again before we ever get any context for their presence. The breezy storytelling and anecdotes are entertaining but in no way represent life for the vast majority of New Orleanians.

Enter Hurricane Katrina. I think surely this will get interesting. Evacuation and watching the ensuing flood on cable news is covered in great detail. After a few days, Julia bluffs her way back into the city with a press pass to find her house is 100% intact with no flooding. She suffered from one downed tree, a broken window and debris strewn about. This is a fairy tale ending for a homeowner in a storm that triggered the biggest man made disaster in the history of the United States.

Julia justifiably goes after the requisite local, state and federal officials for their ineptitude very briefly in the book. She is tediously self congratulatory about her many trips from Baton Rouge to bring food into the city for the National Guardsmen stationed in the post Katrina war zone. She deserves credit for her part in organizing the ReBirth New Orleans benefit but it still seems like arrogant self importance that drives her rather than true altruism.

The ever present descriptions of good food and wine did make me hungry for New Orleans cuisine... and a cohesive story. I felt like I was in the midst of a cocktail party in a room full of people I didn't know hearing bits and pieces of conversation and constantly found myself trying to make sense of it all. The conversational nature of the story telling and the short 200 page length made it an easy read but ultimately it felt unfulfilling. If you want a Katrina story to cheer about, read "The Good Pirates of the Forgotten Bayous" by Ken Wells.