Monthly Archives: October 2017

Sound ‘Round: Neil Young / Hamell on Trial

Men alone with their thoughts (and guitars)

Neil Young – Hitchhiker (Reprise)

Lost recordings, my ass. In a patented move favored by Boomer acts, Neil Young has exploited the past to disguise the fact the creative well is dry. These 10 songs were recorded in 1976 during a day-long session fueled by an iconoclast on a hot streak and a few lines of cocaine. The tapes were inexplicably shelved, and the album-that-never-was grew into one of rock’s many myths.  Gripes about nostalgia and marketing gags aside, this is his most cohesive and affecting batch of songs in five years. Thing is, we’ve already heard all but two of them elsewhere in Young’s scattershot discography. From 1979’s seminal Rust Never Sleeps and up to 2010’s experimental Le Noise, the bones of this album have been picked clean. What dates this record are the characters Young populates his songs with — Nixon, Marlon Brando and Pocahontas live at the Astro Dome! But the tranquility of the performances and strength of the material shakes off the grime of history. “Powderfinger” is no-less devastating when stripped of Crazy Horse’s hungover guitars, and rarely has his quivering voice been so haunting on “Captain Kennedy.” The production is unadorned, the mood is bleak and the auteur seems weathered and weary.  I’ll be damned if this doesn’t rock nonetheless. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Powderfinger” / “Pocahontas” / “Hitchhiker”

Hamell on Trial – Big Mouth Strikes Again (New West)

This live disc is included as a bonus for those who purchase the vinyl copy of Tackle Box but is available on streaming services, too. Regardless of format, these songs are a preview to get your keister in the seats when Edward Hamell visits your town. His anti-folk polemics translate to the stage without losing an ounce of vigor, and being in front a paying audience strengthens his funny bone and sharpens his sarcasm. While humor is found in the macabre, the best laughs regard fatherhood on “Inquiring Minds,” in which Hamell attempts to save face for his inquisitive son. “So when he asks me about my past, and did I get high / I’ve been seriously thinking about my reply / I’m gonna lie, lie, lie, lie, lie.” But he’s not joking when he claims to be the happiest man in the world in spite of a devastating divorce (“When you got nothing, you got nothing they can take away”) and he’s dead set against racism, jingoism and Dancing with the Stars. But notice his most solemn lyrics come in the form of a tribute to Matthew Shephard and other victims of hate crimes based on sexual orientation. Like every great songwriter before him, he knows sympathy is for others. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks:  “Happiest Man in the World” / “Inquiring Minds” / “Hail”

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Sound ‘Round: Fat Tony / The Rough Guide to Salsa de Puerto Rico

A Texan and Puerto Ricans in it for the long haul

Fat Tony – MacGregor Park (self-released)

Anthony Jude Obi is the next great rapper you’ve never heard of but has every right to grab your attention. His intellect is keen, his rhymes nimble, his compassion and humor served in equal measure. Before Hurricane Harvey dumped 275 trillion pounds of water on his native Houston, he spent the preceding years earning his keep in the city’s Third Ward. This eight-track mixtape, released a month before Harvey’s biblical torrent, is an ode to the city that made him and a love letter to youthful innocence. The best track here combines both sentiments, wherein a drunk Tony hits up Texas-based burger chain Whataburger with his sweetheart (“Me and my girl at the drive thru / And you know I got fries, too”). The setting is purposely juvenile, but these aren’t the musings of a misty-eyed romantic, rather a 28 year old who understands the pros of being pragmatic. He settles scores with fists instead of guns, gives a cop the benefit of the doubt and proselytizes the societal benefits of legalizing chronic. He’s heady no doubt, but his heart wins the day on the sanguine title track in which ordinary charm defeats everyday drudgery at his favorite H-Town hot spot. Flooding be damned, there’s still no place like home. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Drive Thru” / “MacGregor Park” / “Ride Home”

Various Artists – Rough Guide to Salsa de Puerto Rico (World Music Network, 2003)

The title is misleading. While this 63-minute compilation is muy salsa grande, the music’s Puerto Rican heritage isn’t always directly imported. By my count, at least five of these 13 acts originated stateside and were raised in the Bronx by immigrant parents. Another is Cuban and another still is Dominican. Geographical particulars notwithstanding, salsa is an uncontainable feeling, an assembly line of supple grooves, delicate textures and an alluring streak of romantic fatalism. That the track list is so cosmopolitan reflects the unifying power of music as well as Puerto Rico’s complex relationship with the United States — a relationship exacerbated 14 years after the album’s release by Hurricane Maria and Trump’s inability to comprehend human suffering. And while ordinary schmucks like you and I pick up the slack in rebuilding efforts, play these songs to celebrate the resiliency of the human spirit. After you’ve donated to relief efforts, start with Eddie Palmieri’s buoyant piano inflections before migrating to Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe’s irresistible fiesta. After relishing Jimmy Bosch’s warm alto and even warmer trombone, play the whole thing front to back. When you’re finished, donate some more and give the music another spin. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Tirandote Flores” / “Todo Tiene Su Final” / “Muy Joven Para Mi”

Sound ‘Round: Hard Working Americans / Sarah Shook and the Disarmers

Hard working, hard drinking Americans

Hard Working Americans – We’re All in This Together (Melvin/Thirty Tigers)

If Todd Snider’s brilliant solo career is to be put on indefinite hiatus, there are worse excuses than fronting a jam band that satisfies his Widespread-Panic diggin’, hippie-lovin’ heart. And while Snider is kind enough to let the musicians — an All-Star cast of professional jammers — stretch their legs on this sturdy live album, it’s his knack for simplicity and empathy for the common man that largely keep things on the straight and narrow. There are few psychedelic tendencies and even fewer masturbatory displays of showmanship. These are blue-collar protest songs that owe more to Bo Diddley’s boogie than Bob Dylan’s romanticism. That’s why the best performance is a hellfire rendition of Hayes Carll’s “Stomp and Holler” and why the finale is a take on Chuck Berry. It’s also why Snider’s greatest foe is the bottle that brings him to the brink of madness. Not that reality is much better: corporate robber barons, crooked cops, fluoride in the water. So credit their ebullient crowd-pleasing on “I Don’t Have a Gun,” wherein Snider urges the congregation to transcend the drudgery. “This could be the night of your entire life. Why not? Why not? Why not tonight?” All aboard the Mystery Machine to peace, love and happiness.  GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Stomp and Holler” / “I Don’t Have a Gun” / “Run A Mile”

Sarah Shook & the Disarmers – Sidelong (Bloodshot)

Maybe it’s because I’m unimpressed with self-destructive behavior, or maybe it’s because I’m writing this review with a hangover, but I want more from this North Carolina smart-ass. First, some backstory. She disavowed mom and dad’s strict religious upbringing without disregarding their relationship. Devout atheism is her creed, bartending her day-job, bisexuality her preference and guitar came only after her son was born. It’s hard living and you feel it on each and every one of these 11 honky-tonk ditties replete with whiskey and other swill. Shook’s gruff, quivering alto signifies her economic status, and her dark humor teases a budding lyricist still prone to the rookie mistake of equating debauchery with artistic authenticity. “I can’t cry myself to sleep so I drink myself to death.” “There’s only one thing to do and that’s to drink you off my mind.” “Nothin’ feels right but doin’ wrong anymore.” Tear-in-your-beer poetry, sure, but she says more about herself on the song in which she swears off booze. Too bad the follow-up hits the bottle harder than ever. Not all is lost. The one person she makes recompense to is mama in the form of a heart tattoo. How compelling and sober. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: “Keep the Home Fires Burnin’” / “Make It Up To Mama” / “Misery Without Company”