Beth Hart would be on the short list for quarantine perfomers of the year. This one is a song. This one is from last’s years record War In My Mind.
The Bye Bye Blackbirds – Boxer at Rest (five out of five)
The first thing that jumps out when you hit the play button or drop the needle down on Boxer at Rest, the supremely excellent new record by Oakland California’s Bye Bye Blackbirds, is the pristine knob-twirling production value courtesy of Doug Gillard, who has worked with Guided By Voices and Nada Surf as well as many other bands you like, that hits you between the ears on the first song “You Were All Light.”
At first-listen, the opening drum intro followed by the Big Star worthy guitar chords will float your mind-space back to happier and even hippier times. And, once the perfectly mixed vocals join the party courtesy of the George Harrison meets Tom Petty (Travelling Wilbury’s era) vibe of the main songwriter Bradley Skaught, suddenly, as the horns kick-in to take you home, all is right with the world. And it almost wasn’t.
As the album was written and the tracking well underway at Hyde Street Studios in San Francisco, founding member Lenny Gill fell gravely ill with an illness requiring a heart transplant almost derailing the record before it really got started. Then, during a period of time when Lenny’s ability to ever play the guitar again was very much in doubt, the band recorded each of the individual tracks with the exception of the guitar parts and put them on a shelf for safekeeping. Replacing the irreplaceable and finding another player to fill in for Lenny was never an option. It was a time to be patient, a time to live, a time to heal. Until finally, after a hard-fought nine months of rehab, the boxer at rest was ready to get back into the ring recording all of the guitar parts in one day.
Having been largely written before Lenny’s illness, the songs on Boxer at Rest are mostly upbeat affairs with an undercurrent of social consciousness lying just below the surface of virtually every track. Two of the songs that demonstrate Bradley Skaught’s agile songwriting skills, “How Do We Stay?” and “All Our Friends” directly address the tragic 2016 fire that killed 36 people in a warehouse known as The Ghost Ship that had been converted into an artist collective in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland.
All we do is love you
and sing your names out
We pulled the anchor
And kissed you out to sea
And, on “So True” the gentrification of the neighborhoods in and around Oakland with hipster lofts and overpriced coffee shops taking over the landscape is lamented.
“In miles of old alleyways, all our secrets in piles, left outside where the dogs can find them. Gone like they’d never arrived.”
There is a poetic poignancy to virtually every song on this record that is enhanced even more so through a set of quality headphones and multiple listens. The liner notes clearly say play this one loud. Advice best heeded.
Trying to choose a favorite song or to cull band influences or genres from the choice morsels presented here would be somewhat of a fools’ errand. There is literally nothing not to like with this record. Sure, there are fairy dustings of Big Star, The Birds, Buffalo Springfield, and the Box Tops sprinkled everywhere, but make no mistake. Lenny, Bradley and the rest of the band aren’t simply riding the coattails of those that have gone before them, they are playing it forward with depth and deep reverence. Just listen to the guitar licks that would make Sun Records and Sam Phillips proud towards the end of “War Is Still Hell” and tell us we’re wrong. On “Watch Them Chime” you might catch the scent of R.E.M.’ or even a Tim era Replacements vibe. And, on “Baby It’s Still You” the horns are back in just the right spots and the band’s secret weapon, Kelly Atkins, announces herself in fine fashion even though she has been classing up the joint earlier with her elegant harmonies throughout many many of the tracks.
At a nice and tidy 33 minutes and 23 seconds, this one is best savored in one sitting with a nice cocktail in hand, surrounded by good friends, toasting those that are no longer able to join us.
With Sharon Jones gone Jessie Wagner might be the next Neo-Soul singer superstar. Having worked with Lenny Kravitz, Duran Duran, Chic, and Stevie Van Zandt just to name a few her soon to be released new record should be epically soul-satisfying.
A nice slice of Rock and Roll Pie from the Manchester rockers’ debut record, Peach. This one is a punchy, dirty blues tune that will give you a great flavor of what this high octane band with the cool name is all about.
We haven’t quite hit the summer stride as yet, but things are starting to heat up quite nicely. We are getting some sneak peeks to some cool ones that are just around the bend and there are some subtle beauties that are announcing themselves.
Robert plant, yes, that Robert Plant has released a teaser tune that has our ears a-buzz as he turns it up and takes a ride down Charlie Patton Highway as only he can.
The boys in Deep Purple, Mach 65, or whatever version of the band is in vogue these days are really bringing it in fine Hall of Famer fashion.
And, newcomer Jordan Lehning is out with one of the more beautiful ballads of the year with “Oolaloom.”
Here are five records we think are really cool this week.
Mary Chapin Carpenter – The Dirt and the Star
Mary Chapin is back with her the first new record of new stuff since 2016 with The Dirt and the Stars, and its almost as if she has not been gone and all. Written in her Vermont home before the pandemic hit, Carpenter waxes politically on old age, politics, life changes, and the importance of empathy along with with other home-spun subjects as only she can. When she tells us “It’s Ok to Be Sad” and shows us “Where The Beauty Is” It’s like sitting on your front porch with an old friend.
Cary Morin – Dockside Saints
Exploring the musical landscape on the dirty side of roots-based Americana this eclectic guitar-slinger will have you riveted from the opening bell with “Nobody Gotta Know” a voodoo blend of Cajun, Swamp Rock, with hints of Bluegrass that seemingly shares some DNA with Dr. John. With Exception to the Rule” Cory’s sensitive side comes out along with his ear-friendly voice, and on “Prisoner” and on “Tonight” we find out just how the guitar Gods have blessed this exciting new talent.
Jenny O. – New Truth
There is definitely a whole lot of the Best Coast vibes swirling all around this eclectically new record from Jenny O. Vintage Pop meld in perfect harmony with the So. Cal. Laurel Canyon vibe most particularly on “Color Love” and “What About the Day.” This is a sit in the garden and watch the butterfly’s sort of listen.
Tough Age – Which Way Am I
A new wave masterpiece for the new millennium, Tough Age, the latest record from Tough Age, harkens back to the Post Punk glory days of the late ’70’s early ’80s. Heavily influenced by The Feelies and Television, their music is taught and full of simmering just under the surface energy. Whether it’s the anthemic “Penny Current Suppression Ring” or the power riffing bass-forward “Anti-Anxiety Exercises, this band would have had a permanent residence at CBGB’s back in the day.
Blue Oyster Cult – Live in London (45th Anniversary Edition)
Released for the first time on CD celebrating the 45th anniversary of their Live in London concert, this set is a must-have not only for BOC completists but for any fan of good old fashioned Rock and Roll. Memorable for being the first, and to date only, time the band has played their debut self-titled record start to finish in a live setting. This also stands this live performance apart and ahead of the somewhat tired “Some Enchanted Evening.” And, its terrific hearing this iconic band at the peak of their powers. The highlight from this part of the set, “The Cities on Flame With Rock and Roll” is delivered with the passion we had come to expect from one of the more underrated Rock and Roll bands in the game.
Once the record is finished and after the brief interlude in the form of the instrumental “Buck’s Boogie” the monster hits kick in with “Godzilla” and “Don’t Fear The Reaper” back to back. Song placement is key here as it is always better when the band doesn’t wait for the encore to dial-up their mega-hits. Editors note: Don’t expect to hear “Burning For You” on this set. The song had not been written yet.
Don’t get excited Midland fans. This single is from their 2019 must-hear record Let It Roll not from a soon to be released new album. For those that think Midland is a bit Yacht Rock for your delicate ears, this cust will only serve to enforce your quite accurate assessment of this band on some of their songs.
If you are scoring at home our top three ‘rock is not dead’ Rock and Roll bands of the day are Massive Wagons, Starbenders, Wyldlife, and Starbender, not necessarily in that order. Here, Starbenders professes their band-love for each other from their record released earlier in the year, Love Potions.
A spot-on cover of the murder ballad made famous by Eddie Noack. Early James, yet another super-talent from Easy Eye Records, embodies the maniacal narrator to perfection.
Very much in The Cadillac Three mold, Christopher Shayne tears it up in the mold of the devil spawn of Blackberry Smoke and ZZ Top.
This band of merry women doesn’t mess around. Heatwave, their recently released scorcher of a record is already on the shortlist for Rock and Roll album of the year.