Dion – Blues With Friends (Keeping The Blues Alive Records)
It has been nearly 60 years since Dion first appeared on the scene with his first hits, “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer”, songs that will live forever. He is a living legend, and at 80 years old, has given us his 18th studio album. Taking a note from Santana, Dion asked a different guitar icon to join him on each track.
Among those he counts as friends are the prodigious talents of Joe Bonamassa, Billy Gibbons, Brian Setzer, Jeff Beck, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, and several others. Each of those tracks takes on the personality of the guest artist, varying the styles of blues from swing – to folk – to rock – to traditional. Through it all, Dion’s voice provides a unity between the songs. Age has most assuredly not weakened his voice. On the contrary, he sounds as vibrant, powerful, and relevant as he ever did.
I defy anyone to listen to “My Baby Loves To Boogie” (John Hammond), “Bam Bang Boom” (Billy Gibbons), or “I Got The Cure” (Sonny Landreth) without feeling the need to move. Equally difficult would be ignoring the emotional grip of “Can’t Start Over Again” (Jeff Beck) or “Told You Once In August” (John Hammond, Rory Block).
From the first track to the last, Blues With Friends is a trip worth taking.
FFO: Eric Clapton, Alabama Shakes, any of the artists named above
Sondre Lerche – Patience (PLZ)
It’s sort of hard to believe that it was nearly 20 years ago that I was first handed the debut album from an unknown Norwegian 16 year old from L.A. His songs were simple, catchy pop-rock with a flavor that was fresh and invigorating. I remember liking it quite a bit.
Then I promptly neglected him for the next 2 decades.
Skip to now…and nothing has changed. The instrumentation has matured slightly, perhaps influenced by the many soundtracks he has worked on. This is particularly noticeable on the orchestra-led “Put The Camera Down”, but can be heard on every song. Lyrically, his romantic side shines through on “You Are Not Who I Thought I Was”, “Why Would I Let You Go”, and “I Can’t See Myself Without You”. These songs manage to convey simple, lovely messages without coming across as sappy or melodramatic.
If there was one thing that I had to complain about, it is that the production is so clean, dry, and perfectly orchestrated that it feels sterile. But I only noticed because I was searching for something negative to say. If I’m just listening to the beautiful language, Sondre’s crisp, soothing voice, and the way it floats about the music…
…everything else melts.
FFO: Ben Folds, Paul Simon, Chris Lee
Sarah Jarosz – World On The Ground (Rounder Records)
Sarah Jarosz’s Texas roots are easy to spot. Whether it’s her voice or the country motifs ever-present in most of the tracks on World On The Ground, or the bluegrassy sound that sneaks in every so often, there’s no hiding it. Luckily for us, I don’t think that Sarah has any intention of hiding it at all.
After taking home two Oscars for her previous album, Undercurrent, Sarah looks to improve on that lofty effort. I’ve listened to about half of Undercurrent, and I feel that World On The Ground is an even better, more complete album. It feels bigger, fuller, with a more confident sound. The variance in pacing is notable too: Sarah provides a great mixture of slow jams (“What Do I Do”, “Hometown”) and more upbeat tracks (“Johnny”, “Little Satchel”). “Little Satchel” provides the pickin’est track on the album, for those who dig such things (which I, in fact, dig).
It’s usually difficult for me to pick a favorite song on an album, especially on an album as good as this, but this one was a no brainer for me. “I’ll Be Gone” is on my short-but-growing list of my favorite songs of the year. If I had to guess, Sarah Jarosz will have some more hardware to look forward to for World On The Ground when all is said and done.
FFO: Sara Watkins, Aoife O’Donovan (Watkins and O’Donovan formed group I’m With Her along with Jarosz), Gillian Welch
Michael McDermott – What in the World… (Pauper Sky Records)
What in the World… is a lovely, old-school album. It should come as no surprise that Michael McDermott himself is pretty old school, with his first album releasing in 1991. Michael has always maintained a high level of volume, releasing at least four solo albums in every decade since the 1990s.
You’ll likely hear shades of some of the American acts of yesteryear here: Dylan, Petty, The Boss, you name it. Despite the older references, however, What in the World… never feels too plain or too late for its sound. Michael comes off as an expert storyteller here, whether on the heart-wrenching “The Veils of Veronica” or the uplifting “No Matter What”. These tracks in particular work better than the tracks with more of a full band feel (“Contender”, “What in the World…”), as Michael’s style lends more to a minimal experience.
All in all, What in the World… is a solid, if somewhat underwhelming, offering. This is not to the level of Jason Isbell’s opus Reunions, but it’s an entertaining listen regardless.
FFO: Brendan Benson, Lyle Lovett
The Ghost Inside – The Ghost Inside (Epitaph)
For their 6th effort, the melodic hardcore giants are hitting a level of intensity that is simply staggering. The only breaks we are given from powerhouse grooves and shredded-throat shrieking is the surprisingly reserved “One Choice” and the first two minutes (or so) of “Unseen”, a brilliantly poignant track about not hiding behind silence.
Which brings me to an important aspect of this album. Yes, it’s loud. It is angry and filled with anguished cries. But it’s a hurt that is built from human indignation. This is 11 songs about not being complacent or staying silent. It’s 11 songs about cutting out toxicity from your life and surviving all the garbage that gets thrown at you. It’s about finding a way out of even the worst situations.
In short, it’s about healing through catharsis, righting wrongs, and coming out the other side. It doesn’t hurt that The Ghost Inside takes you through the white-hot center of adrenaline to get there, either.
FFO: August Burns Red, Misery Index
The Unfit – The Unfit (Share It Music)
Looking at a picture of The Unfit, you might assume that this is 4 white dudes who haven’t showered since they saw their first tour bus. While that’s (most likely) true, it’s probably the result of being so anti-establishment that showers are the enemy. To our benefit, It’s also probably what is fueling their passion. They’re angry about the state of things. They are disillusioned with leadership and authority. They’re expressing that distaste through being as loud and poetic is possible.
This breed of punk rock hasn’t really had a scene since the ‘90s in D.C. It’s a call to action, a social outcry, and mimics the feeling of unrest that has begun bubbling over. The music is discordant and just plain loud, bringing you directly into their mindset. The vocals are also there, continuing with the motif of simultaneously having to few and too many shits to give.
Where this album rings the most honest for me is the lack of specificity. Largely, they seem to have a beef with dishonest government, abuse of power, and abuse of money, and the album basically becomes a vague list of complaints. There’s no plan for improvement or actual political agenda. These cats are powerless and uncomfortable. They are angry and confused. Tilting at windmills, so to speak. And they are bringing us along for the ride.
FFO: Minor Threat, The Catheters, Rye Coalition
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQiiPNZbFW0 [sorry, but this particular band doesn’t have much on YouTube. This is the official video for “Caged Rats and Hamster Wheels”, but it won’t embed for whatever reason. Enjoy.]
Used Cassettes – Used Cassettes (Loose Union)
This is another act that I had never heard of until now. Which is not at all surprising, considering their place of origin. Hailing from South Africa, Canada, and Detroit, by way of Seoul, these guys are saying that this is probably their last effort. Thus I begin my dance of shame.
The phrase “cheerful nihilism” has repeatedly come to mind while this is playing. Starting with the logo, everything about this record comes as a surprise. They chose a proto-typical vine-y, cracked-leather metal band font (but legible) for the album cover. So when I hit play, a light, pop-tinged garage rock was NOT what I expected to emanate from my portable bluetooth speaker.
From that moment on, the word “typical” held no meaning. While there are clear consistencies throughout, each track has a (slightly) different vibe. It moves smoothly from the melancholia of “Gasoline” and “22 Part 1” to the ‘60s rock psychedelia of “Honey” and “Sour Puss” to the theme-music style instrumental “Funky With Chorus”.
The nihilism comes into play when you’re paying attention to the words. Even when the songs are upbeat and fun sounding, they are about lost love, social narcissism, and foregone conclusions about life. If you were to ignore the lyrics and focus on the lazy belting of the vocals, the jangly, angular guitars and the raw emotional quality of the sound, you are in for a nostalgic romp into some old-school rock-n-roll.
FFO: The Kinks, Julian Casablancas, Hot Hot Heat
Joy Downer – Paper Moon (Joy Downer)
This is a take on Alternative Indie-Pop that I can thoroughly get behind. For starters, it’s “Indie” in the truest sense, self-released and self-promoted. It is also truly alternative, in that there is nothing else like it.
Joy had an EP released a few years ago that went nearly unnoticed, but 2020 might just be her year. Back in January, Netflix debuted a series called Spinning Out, featuring our burgeoning pop-heroine as the theme music, giving her a boost to Spotify spins and requests for performances.
Paper Moon is her first full-length album, and it is infectious, which may be a poor choice of words given the current state of things, but there we are. Joy’s vocal melodies are addictive, bordering dangerously on “cute”. Her use of synth and drum machines, while not truly unique, is seamless and groovy in a way that feels fresh and creative.
This is not your sister’s dream-pop. It is so much more.
FFO: Le Tigre, The Ditty Bops, Regina Spektor
Run the Jewels – RTJ4 (Jewel Runners LLC)
Hype sucks, man.
Here’s why: think of something you were really, really excited about. A movie? TV series? Video game? I’ve got my own examples in each category. And every single time, the actual product doesn’t live up to the hype. That’s not to say that it’s not very good! A few of my own are the Watchmen movie (good!), the TV series Wayward Pines (not as good!), and the video game Death Stranding (good, I think, but I’m honestly not sure WHAT it is!). In each case, I would’ve enjoyed the thing much more if I didn’t know that the thing existed before experiencing it.
Which brings me back to RTJ4. I love Run the Jewels, and I’ve been excited about the next chapter since 2016’s Run the Jewels 3. That excitement made way for hype, and the knowledge that said hype would probably derail my enjoyment of RTJ4.
You probably know the drill by now: Killer Mike is more power, and El-P is more finesse, but either man can easily hold their own against anyone else in the game right now, or ever. They don’t ease into it either – it’s go from jump. The first track, “yankee and the brave (ep. 4)”, hits every bit as hard as the “Kill Your Masters” portion of the final track on Run the Jewels 3.
The great Zack de la Rocha features on that track, as he does in the breathtaking anthem “JU$T”; the lyric “Look at all these slave masters/posin’ on yo’ dollar” is a verbal dagger in every sense. You won’t see me signing up for a 2 Chainz fan club anytime soon, but his spot on “out of sight” isn’t terrible. The line “I buy a hot dog stand if I’m tryna be frank” made me giggle, which was a nice bit of levity on an otherwise hard-hitting album. “walking in the snow” featuring Gangsta Boo is arguably the hardest track on the album, and also arguably the best, but any of these tracks would decimate most other current rap music.
And one last thing: both El-P and Killer Mike both turned 45 this year, so for all you older 30+ folks like me, just know that we still have some hope.
FFO: Killer Mike and El-P. They both have enough music before Run The Jewels to keep you busy for a good long while.
Janet Devlin – Confessional (OK!Good Records)
Streaming media is not without its ills, particularly when it comes to fair compensation for artists. However, one of the major positives is the ability to become familiar with an artist who may not have a large following, or a ton of popularity. This is also the case with an artist that may be popular in one area, but not globally. And that brings us to Janet Devlin.
Janet, from Northern Ireland, came to prominence in season eight of The X Factor, where she came fifth behind eventual winner, Little Mix. Considering that was nearly ten years ago, it’s safe to say that she has made great strides from then to now. Confessional marks Janet’s third studio album, her first since 2014’s Running With Scissors, and coincides with the release of her autobiography, My Confessional.
Both album and book are teeming with emotion, which is made even more compelling by Janet’s beautiful Northern Irish vocals – soft and soothing at times, yet powerful and prestigious at others. Traditional Irish instruments are layered perfectly among the tracks, enhancing without overshadowing. The instruments and Janet’s vocals both give the album a very unique feel, and both work well to highlight the passion within the lyrics.
Janet Devlin’s Confessional will mark a great listen, and one that many of us – especially here in the US – likely would have glossed over without the reach that music has today. I’m happy that I had the opportunity to listen.
FFO: Ellie Goulding, Regina Spektor, Grace VanderWaal