Category Archives: Reviews

From the grave – John Denver warns us

John Denver may be trying to warn us. Yes, one of the biggest-selling artists of the 1970’s, who’s been dead now for 21 years, may be sending us a message – and we should pay attention. Music history depends on it.

I have two teenage boys, so I’m perhaps a little more hip to youth culture than most (but still hopelessly out of step). It’s my eldest, now eighteen, who brought this to my attention.

Over the last year or so, Denver’s ubiquitous 1971 hit “Take Me Home Country Roads” has become part of youth culture, joining a small list of older songs like “Africa,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It’s been the subject of countless memes and videos, and was also featured in the recent Fallout ’76 video game.

An entire new generation of young people have come to know this folk-rock classic. But, here’s the issue: they’re listening to the WRONG version.

A quick search of the song on Spotify reveals something shocking: The most-listened to version of the song (128 million and counting) is a RE-RECORDING, featuring a much-older Denver, not at the peak of his talent.

This version comes from The John Denver Collection Volume One, a budget compilation from Laserlight Records, – you know, the CDs you often see at truck stops mixed in with the $1 DVDs.

The actual, 1971 hit version has less than 1/4th the plays (a mere 36 million).

Well, who cares – I mean it’s just John Denver, right? But, it could happen to any artist. What if a lousy version of an Elvis song or a Beatles’ recording becomes all the rage?

Spotify has long stayed out of curating their music, allowing what’s actually being played to come up first. But, in a situation like this, it might be good for someone to step in.

The re-recording of “Country Roads” is inferior in every way – the musicianship is bland, and Denver’s voice is ragged and lacks the soaring quality that made him a worldwide superstar. I’d bet that Denver’s estate probably isn’t getting any of the royalties from this version either (it’s usually these type of recordings that exploit artists just looking to make some extra money late in their careers).

Thankfully, a similar search on Youtube reveals the original recording coming up first, at 188 million views.

Not sure how this happened on Spotify, but it’s certainly something to keep an eye on. –Tony Peters

Paul Kelly – Nature (review)

Paul Kelly – Nature (Cooking Vinyl)

There is simply no one like Paul Kelly.  The Australian singer/songwriter has been creating music for over 40 years now, yet unlike most of his contemporaries – he’s showing no signs of slowing down.  You cannot name another artist that has been both this consistent and yet continues to break new ground. His latest album, Nature, is another in a long line of triumphs.

Back in 2016, Kelly released Seven Sonnets & a Song, where he put music to several works by William Shakespeare.  This opened up a whole new approach to songwriting, which he again used for the closing track to last year’s Life is Fine (adding music to a poem by Langston Hughes).  Now for Nature, his 24th album, the majority of the album is comprised of poems, either from legendary poets, or Kelly himself. Continue reading Paul Kelly – Nature (review)

Lee Michaels – Manifesto Reissues

Lee Michaels – Nice Day For Something (Manifesto)

Lee Michaels – Tailface (Manifesto)

The Seventies were the height of the “album artist” – where a musician could build a following through touring and FM underground radio support, and consistently issue albums that would hit the charts, even though they rarely got played on Top 40.

Lee Michaels was one such artist, who released seven albums for A&M Records from 1968-1973, with five of them landing on Billboard’s LP chart.  Yet, all we remember him for now is “Do You Know What I Mean,” an organ-led slice of blue-eyed soul that hit #6 in 1971.  Manifesto Records brought all of those albums back in print in 2016, along with a fantastic overview called Heighty Hi/The Best of (which we reviewed here).

Michaels’ signed with Columbia Records in 1973 and issued a pair of albums over the next two years: Nice Day For Something and Tailface.  Manifesto has just issued these albums in remastered form, with original album packaging.  Both records are making their digital debut. Continue reading Lee Michaels – Manifesto Reissues

McGuire Sisters – Seasons Greetings From the McGuire Sisters

Seasons Greetings From the McGuire Sisters

If you enjoy tight, three-part harmony, Season’s Greetings From the McGuire Sisters is a breath of fresh air for your holiday music listening. Originally released in 1958, Real Gone Music has rescued this seasonal obscurity, making it available digitally for the very first time.

The McGuire Sisters – Phyllis, Dottie and Christine, were one of the biggest vocal groups of the 1950’s. They hailed from Miamisburg, Ohio, and originally got their start like a lot of sibling groups – singing in church. After getting a lucky break on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts Show, the trio were signed to Decca Records and began charting hit singles like “Sincerely” and “Sugartime” (both #1’s). They were frequent stars on both radio and television.

The McGuires took what similar combos like the Andrews Sisters did and improved upon it, adding flair and personality to the super tight harmonies – giving them an infectious quality that was all their own. Also overlooked were the girls’ versatility, tackling current pop, but easily at home with hymns, ballads and turn-of-the-century classic fare as well.

All of this is on full display on Seasons Greetings – from the McGuires’ bouncy treatment of “Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town,” things quickly move to the luscious, harmony-laden ballad “Give Me Your Heart For Christmas.” What sets this album apart from typical holiday fare is the fact that most of these songs are unfamiliar – from the spiritual-based “He” to the heartfelt “The Littlest Angel,” and the playful “I’d Like to Trim a Tree With You.” This is not the tired stuff you’ve been hearing on the radio since Thanksgiving.

“Christmas Alphabet” was a single that came out back in 1954, and it still holds up pretty well. Things get goofy for “The Cactus Christmas Tree,” which features the sisters doing various farm animal noises – it’s a real hoot. Thankfully, that’s followed by the gorgeous, string-laden “If You Believe.” The girls show off their gospel roots with “He’s Got Time” before ending on a positive note with the charming “Happy New Year.”

In addition to the original, 12-song LP, they’ve included three additional tracks – the fun “Be a Santa,” the warm “Peace” and a three-part treatment of “Ave Maria.”

Tom Pickles does a great job of summarizing the McGuires’ history, before, during and after the release of this record in his extensive liner notes.

There’s an undeniable, wide-eyed innocence to these recordings. And, isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

Gorgeous harmonies in a variety of styles – Season’s Greetings From the McGuire Sisters is as inviting as a plate of holiday cookies, fresh from the oven. —Tony Peters

Ynana Rose – Tea Leaf Confessions (review)

Ynana Rose – Tea Leaf Confessions (Ynana Rose Music)

Music for those of us who have lived and are still around to tell about it

California native Ynana Rose wrote her first song at the age of 37.  She’s used that wisdom of the years to her advantage in crafting her new album, Tea Leaf Confessions.  Rose possesses a husky voice that’s unique, yet inviting.  And, she’s surrounded herself with some of the finest musicians of her region.  The result is an album full of surprises.

The disc opens with “Stardust Firefly,” a rumination on aging, which features mandolin and an aching dobro.  The soulful “Hard Work of Love” is an honest look at a successful relationship, with the truthful words “I don’t need a symphony / just the right note will do.”

Another example of wisdom paving the way is “Thin White Line,” where a mother leaves at an early age.  Instead of holding on to the hurt, the daughter learns forgiveness, singing “the world will let you down / but as long as it’s spinning ‘round / you can choose which way to turn.”   Continue reading Ynana Rose – Tea Leaf Confessions (review)

Fastball – All the Pain Money Can Buy (review)

Fastball – All The Pain Money Can Buy (Omnivore Recordings)

One of the best albums of the late-Nineties’ alternative scene gets another look

Beginning with a snippet of someone turning the radio dial, then a primitive keyboard loop, “The Way” sounded like nothing else on the radio in 1998. The debut single off Fastball’s sophomore album, All The Pain Money Can Buy, shot up the Modern Rock charts, eventually hitting #1 for seven weeks, and changing the fortunes of the three musicians from Austin forever.

Yet, unlike so many bands from that time period (Marcy Playground, anyone?), Fastball were not a “one-hit wonder.” Two other hits followed, “Fire Escape,” and “Out of My Head,” propelling the album, first to Gold, then to Platinum status, within six months of its release. Here’s the thing – atypical of that time period, this is an entire record of good songs, and it actually still holds up twenty years later. Omnivore Recordings has just issued the album in remastered form, with some very interesting bonus tracks. Continue reading Fastball – All the Pain Money Can Buy (review)

NRBQ – All Hopped Up (Omnivore Recordings) (review)

NRBQ – All Hopped Up (Omnivore)

NRBQ has been making music, some brilliant, some downright indescribable, for over 50 years now.  All Hopped Up is their fifth album, originally issued in 1977, and it’s finally been reissued by Omnivore Recordings, who even found some bonus tracks.

From their 1969 debut album, NRBQ specialized in genre-hopping, mixing party rockers alongside avant-garde jazz, while tender ballads rubbed shoulders with novelty numbers.

That eclecticism certainly prevented the band from gaining much traction or mass popularity, but it made for interesting albums and incendiary live shows.

All Hopped Up marked the debut of the “classic” NRBQ lineup that would stay intact for two decades – Terry Adams (keyboards), Joey Spampinato (bass), Al Anderson (guitar) and new arrival, Tom Ardolino (drums).  It also was the first LP the band issued independently, on their own Red Rooster label.  Continue reading NRBQ – All Hopped Up (Omnivore Recordings) (review)

R.E.M. – At the BBC (review)

R.E.M. – At the BBC (Craft Recordings)

Massive set tracks the band’s ascent from college radio darlings to worldwide superstars

R.E.M. were one of the unlikeliest of global rock bands.  Hailing from the college town of Athens, Georgia, the band’s unique blend of 60’s jangle pop combined with a hip aesthetic, quickly grew from word of mouth to commercial success story, and helped usher in the alternative rock movement that would follow into the 90’s.

At the BBC is a brand-new, multi-disc collection that charts this trajectory  – you really hear the band mature right before your ears.

It might seem odd that a band from the southern US would best be summed up in a collection of their recordings from England.  Yet, at closer look, R.E.M.’s wry humor, art aesthetic and (at least initial) aloofness were all closer to British in nature. Continue reading R.E.M. – At the BBC (review)

Stax ’68 – A Tale of Triumph Over Tragedy (review)

Various Artists – Stax ’68: A Memphis Story (Boxset) (Stax)

To say that 1968 was a bad year for Stax Records might be the understatement of the year.  The label, known for releasing it’s own brand of southern soul, was still reeling from the loss of their biggest and brightest star, Otis Redding, killed in a plane crash the previous month.  Then, in April, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in the same Memphis hotel used by many Stax artists for meetings.  Finally, the company was informed mid-year that, in signing a distribution deal with the much-bigger Atlantic Records, they basically forfeited the rights to their entire back catalog of songs and many of their artists.

There’s more than enough excuses in the previous paragraph to close up shop.  Yet, Stax Records carried on.  Stax ’68: A Memphis Story is a five-disc boxset that delves deep into that fateful year 50 years ago, containing every A and B-side of each single the label released in 1968, along with a booklet, detailing the chaos that was going on, inside and outside the walls of this pioneering record label. Continue reading Stax ’68 – A Tale of Triumph Over Tragedy (review)

Colin James – Miles to Go (review)

Colin James – Miles to Go (Stony Plain)

Canadian guitarist Colin James had a breakout hit album with his last release, 2016’s Blue Highways.  And, while I liked that album, I think his brand-new record, Miles to Go, is better in every way, and should earn James another truckload of accolades.

First, the tracks on this new album just sound bigger. The playing is tighter – he’s kept the same guys intact for some time now and their playing has definitely gelled. The guitar is grittier (there is a picture of a Sears-Roebuck Silvertone on the inner sleeve, and it don’t get any more grittier than that!).  James’ singing, while always decent, seems to have taken on a more assured quality. Continue reading Colin James – Miles to Go (review)