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Sunday, September 14, 2014

ENUFF Z'NUFF "Covered In Gold"

(c) 2014 Deadline Records/Stoney Records

  1. Everything Works If You Let It
  2. Stone Cold Crazy
  3. She Sells Sanctuary
  4. All Apologies
  5. Believe It Or Not
  6. The Jean Genie
  7. Run For Your Life
  8. When Doves Cry
  9. Tears Of A Clown
  10. The Stroke
  11. Yankee Rose
  12. Jealous Guy
  13. You've Got To Hide Your Love Away (Live on Howard Stern)
  14. New Thing (Live, Unglugged in London)
Chip Z'Nuff--Vocals, Bass, Guitar
Donnie Vie--Vocals, Guitar, Piano
Johnny Monaco--Lead Guitar, Vocals
Eric Donner--Drums

The ever-morphing saga of Enuff Z'Nuff seems to be continuing with their latest release, the covers offering, Covered In Gold.  I say ever-morphing because it seems that, depending on the date, the band line-up is in a constant state of flux.  Donnie is in, Donnie is out.  Johnny is the lead vocalist, Johnny is the lead guitarist.  The band is a three-piece, the band is a four-piece.  Yeesh!  It could become a full-time job keeping up with this band...and I already have a full-time job, a part-time job, and this hobby!

Anyway, Covered In Gold is exactly what you might expect, and NOTHING like what you might expect at the same time.  Why?  Because, love them or hate them, Enuff Z'Nuff has always lived on the fringes of the hair genre they are always lumped in with, right or wrong.  Forever wearing their 60's influences on their sleeves and in their songs, the band also incorporated elements of the 70's, and later bits and pieces of the alternative sounds of the 90's, into their sound that can only be described as the Enuff Z'Nuff sound.  Face it, this band has NEVER sounded like anyone else, and likely never will.  As such, it should probably not come as a surprise that when the band decided to do a covers album, the covers they chose are not your typical hair metal/hard rock cover fare.  So, I am going to break this review down into two sections: No-Brainers and Surprises, as there are a handful of both on this covers effort.

No-Brainers

I'm not going to spend a lot of time on the obvious material here, as no one is likely shocked the band chose to cover both the Beatles and John Lennon, or that both tracks came off pretty well.  I like the beefier sound Lennon's "Jealous Guy" gets on this record, which is saying something since I am NOT a Lennon fan.  Matter of fact, I'm not really a Beatles fan, either, with the exception of their early 60's output and a very small smattering of later material.  That being said...

"Run For Your Life", while not the most likely cover choice if I go through a list of Beatles songs, is not shocking.  The band does a solid job of working this song up in a more rock fashion while staying true to the original sound.

The band tackling Nirvana's "All Apologies" isn't as big of a shock as it probably should have been, as Cobain had that tragic-Lennon kind of sound to a lot of his writing, but I would be lying if I told you I thought Nirvana was an obvious selection for this band.  However, anyone familiar with this song would likely agree that if there was one Nirvana tune that Enuff Z'Nuff could pull off, it would be "All Apologies", and they would be correct.  Very well done here.

"Believe It Or Not" is actually the theme song from the 1980's sorta-super hero television show, The Greatest American Hero.  Aside from some HORRIBLE production on this track, I really like what the band does here, and Monaco has some very nice lead guitar work here.  Why is this not a surprise?  For anyone who knows the song (and most of you will the second you hear it), come on...who else could have/would have covered this song so effectively?  No, I'm not surprised that a band as eclectic and out there as Enuff Z'Nuff chose this quirky classic to cover.

"Tears Of A Clown", which is a cover of Smokey Robinson, is also not a real stretch of the imagination, as the performance here is one that I think the listener could easily imagine the band pulling off in concert.

Surprises

"Everything Works If You Let It" is on this list because I am surprised at how poorly the band does covering Cheap Trick.  I honestly thought Cheap Trick would be a slam dunk for Enuff Z'Nuff to cover, but I really don't like the effort here, and the production is not particularly good, which only adds to some of the problems.

Queen's "Stone Cold Crazy" is a shocker that I did not see coming by a country mile!  I had no way to prepare myself for the level of musical angst incorporated by the trippy-dippy, happy-go-lucky band.  Metallica it is not, but it is definitely given an edge that is not traditionally applied to Enuff Z'Nuff.  The tight vocal harmonies on the chorus are a given, but the strong guitar work here was a pleasant surprise.

"She Sells Sanctuary" falls onto the surprises list because nothing about Enuff Z'Nuff and The Cult come together in my mind...ever.  I realize both have always had a retro sound, but EZN is more 60's based than the 70's classic rock roots of The Cult, so I didn't anticipate this cover at all.  Not great, but not horrible, either.

"The Jean Genie" is a song by David Bowie that I will admit I was not overly familiar with.  Not being a Bowie fan in the slightest, this isn't really shocking for me, however.  What is shocking, or more appropriately, surprising, is that the band doesn't do a particularly good job with this song.  Much like I said with the Cheap Trick cover, I would've thought Enuff Z'Nuff would have done more with a song by such an out-there character as Bowie.

"When Doves Cry"   Anyone who knows me will tell you that Prince is one of my big guilty pleasures.  Not going to deny thinking Prince is a musical genius or that his live performances are among the best live shows I have ever seen.  That being said, the band does a fair amount of rearranging on this track, totally changing the intro, and really the vibe of the song in general, making it a different animal all together.  I'm still not sold on this version, as I do love the original, but at least they took a risk on a song that few others would have even considered.

"The Stroke" by Billy Squier is one of those hard-rock songs that EVERYONE knows, but oddly no one seems to cover for some reason.  Perhaps everyone is still trying to distance themselves from the disaster that was the later output from Mr. Squier.  Regardless, Enuff Z'Nuff does a solid job musically on this one, although Monaco's vocals are a bit tough to take at first.  Repeated listens have taken the edge off this track for me, but I won't be surprised if some people don't give this song enough time to allow the vocal approach to work for them.

"Yankee Rose".  This song is a mixed bag for me.  On the down side, Monaco is NOT Steve Vai, so he really should have tried something other than the talking guitar effects utilized on this post-Van Halen Roth track.  Vocally, however, and really for the rest of the music on the track, the band does a solid job here.  It does come off like a bar-band cover rather than a professional, big-time cover by a band of the level of Enuff Z'Nuff, but it's not horrible by any means.

The last two tracks are live songs.  The first is a live in-studio rendition of "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" from the Howard Stern Show, and it is a pretty faithful rendition, tastefully done, but unfortunately interrupted by Howard's annoying banter.  The other live cut is an unplugged version of "New Thing".  Eh, not great, not horrible.  The recording limitations here don't help, either.

I have to assume (and we all know how dangerous assumptions are) that this album was recorded in different stages over a stretch of some time.  I say this for a couple of reasons.  First, the production is very uneven, with some songs sounding like demos and others sounding as if they were given at least a decent studio effort, production-wise.  The other reason is that the last I had heard/read, Chip and Donnie weren't even on speaking terms.  We shall see, I guess, as a new album of originals is slated for 2015, but how many "originals" from the band remains to be seen.

Would I rush right out and get this?  Nope.  Am I going to throw it away?  Also, nope.  I like the quirk-factor to the song selection, and a couple of these covers are very, very well done.  The previously mentioned production issues in spots keep it from possibly getting a better final rating.

Rating:  I'm not a fan of covers albums in general, but this one surprised me a bit.  Rock it at 6.

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TANGO DOWN "Charming Devil"

(c) 2014 Kivel Records

  1. Bad Reputation
  2. Charming Devil
  3. Tunnel Vision
  4. Too Many Roads
  5. Change My World
  6. Heaven's Falling
  7. New Addition
  8. Tomorrow Never Comes
  9. I'm Done Lovin' You
  10. Nothing But Rain
David Reece--Vocals
Scott Miller--Guitars
Ronnie Parkes--Bass
Keith Michaels--Drums

Additional Musicians:
Jace Pawlak--Piano
Erik Johnson--Keyboards

Tango Down returns with their brand new release, Charming Devil, and in one fell swoop have upset the rankings for album of the year...at least as it stands in mid-September.  I can say with all honesty that THIS is the record I have been hoping to hear from this band since the very first time I put one of their CD's on.  THIS is the record Tango Down was always supposed to make...

For starters, David Reece sings like a man possessed.  This is, hands-down, the best he has sounded to my ears since the ill-fated Accept album, Eat The Heat.  In fact, it sounds to me like a hybrid of the Bangalore Choir, On Target album and that Accept record, but with better production than either, and stronger, meatier guitars.  David's voice is edgy and powerful, but you can still hear the fun he is having with each of these tracks right from the get-go.  A great example of this is on the title track. You can almost hear the smirk that Reece likely had plastered on his face as he delivers the "I'm a charming devil..." chorus.  Juxtapose that with the power and emotion packed into the ballad, "Too Many Roads"...which isn't even the best ballad on the record...and you are left with the feeling that Reece was really after something specific here, and that specific thing was the album of his career.

Secondly, as I briefly mentioned above, the guitar work here is just spot-on perfect.  The solos are never stretched out to the point of becoming masturbatory wankery, with solid leads and even more solid rhythms driving each of the ten tracks here.  Case in point would be the guitar work done on "Change My World".  I was discussing this album...and this track in particular...with label owner, John Kivel, and I told him I thought this song was the perfect mix of heft and melodic sensibility, with an absolutely insane guitar solo that I only wish was a bit longer.  But in retrospect, it's that wishing the solo was longer that makes you try to hold onto it when you hear it, because you know it is going to be over all too quickly, and won't be there to drone on and on forever, eventually becoming a lesson in expert-technical-guitar-skill-meets-please-get-on-with-the-song.  We've all heard songs like that at times, and I am exceedingly glad that Miller never lets his desire to be the new guitar hero of the ages interfere with the song structures or the band concept.

Even the rhythm section nails things here, as Parkes and Michaels are in lock-step throughout the album, never dominating things, but always being equal contributors to the tracks here.  Again, this goes back to what I said about Miller understanding the "band concept" here.  This isn't a singer and his guitar slinging sidekick with a couple of average Joes thrown into the mix.  This is a band and a band's project, which I think serves to contribute greatly to the overall sound.

People have asked me to put my finger on my favorite tracks here, and that's a tall task.  I find the title track, complete with its voice box guitar intro (eat your heart out, Sambora...), stuck in my head for hours on end after I hear it.  "Tunnel Vision" is a pure melodic rocker, through and through with some of the best backing vocals on the record.  "New Addiction", a song in which the internet takes the narrative role and talks to the listener, has some killer guitar work, especially coming out of the chorus, that has Miller running the frets in a way that I haven't heard done in some time.  "Nothing But Rain" is such a strong ballad I had to put my lighter away before I could even get around to typing this, and Reece's vocals are a perfect match for this truly power-ballad-structured track.  "Tomorrow Never Comes" is an excellent melodic rocker, and "Change My World" has so much raw power packed into its bottom end and the dirty, chugga-chugga rhythm of the guitars that I find myself going back to this track over and over again.  "Heaven's Falling" has a great 80's throwback vibe in the songwriting approach with a pulsating bass line driving throughout and arena-styled chorus.

Ty Sims (Bombay Black) does an absolutely incredible job in producing this album, never over polishing the songs, always allowing the instruments their own voice (and David his own voice, as well), and keeping things dirty and gritty when necessary.  Not sure if he had a hand in the tracking of the album, but the flow of the songs from one to another is also done exceptionally well, giving the disc a special kind of life when being listened to.

At this point, I only have a digital review release, so I cannot speak to the packaging yet, but I have no doubts it will live up to the reputation of all of the Kivel Records releases I have reviewed in the past.  (I will update this to reflect what I discover when my copy arrives.)

I know it sounds like I have some sort of bizarre obsession with this album, and perhaps I do.  It's such a rare thing when you get an album and everything about it clicks in such a solid way from that first "push play" moment.  Charming Devil just happens to be one of those rare albums that hits on all points for me.  Here's hoping it doesn't wear down at all over time, because I can't help but smile the entire time this album spins.

The band is taking their new album and their live show on the road this fall, so be sure to check them out if they are even REMOTELY near you!  Melodic Rock Fest 4, Wolf Fest, and Skull Fest are just three of the festivals they will be playing, so if you still haven't headed over to Kivel Records to snag a copy by the time the band is in your neck of the woods, be sure to stop and get your copy directly from the band.  I've been told they have a couple of special surprises in store for their live show, and I can only hope "Angel In Black" from Bangalore Choir, and "Generation Clash" from Accept are among those surprises!

Rating:  So dang close to perfect it is painful!  Crank this sucker to...ah, heck, we're gonna call it a 10!  Just a truly great album!

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Saturday, September 6, 2014

TALKIN' TRASH WITH... Jesse Andrews from Emperors & Elephants!




Following the positive response to our review of Devil In The Lake, and after several emails asking me questions about the band, I thought we would take a few minutes to get to know a bit more about Emperors & Elephants by going straight to the source.  So, put your headphones down for a minute, grab something cool to drink, and read along as we talk a little trash with Emperors & Elephants' lead singer, Jesse Andrews...


G2G: Jesse, thanks for taking the time to Talk Some Trash with us…  I have to be honest, when I was sent your album for review, I almost said, “umm, thanks…pass” all because of the name.  Where did the name come from?

Jesse:  It’s a combination of two things that deal with a similar topic.. The story, “The Emperor’s new clothes” and the saying “The Elephant in the room”...we just kinda put them together.

G2G: I realize that’s not really fair to judge based on the name…and I’m glad I gave you guys a spin… but I get sent a LOT of stuff that doesn’t fit the style and sound of our site, so I thought you guys were probably just another alt-rock band, but that’s not the case at all, is it?

J:  No, there is a lot of influences in the music and we try to draw on them , yet keep it relevant..

When I listen to you guys, I hear a lot of grunge mixed with modern hard radio rock and even a bit of a metallic edge, especially in some of the guitar solos.  There is a definite old-school Alice In Chains vibe to a lot of what you do.  Would you say that’s a fair summation of your sound?

J:  Yes

G2G:  You came to the band pretty late, correct?  I mean, some of these guys had been playing together for many years already, right?

J:  Yes. Jeff and Jason have been playing for almost 20 years.

G2G:  Do you ever just step outside your role in the band and go, “Damn, these guys are good!”?  Because, in all fairness, E&E does, in fact, have some really good musicians in the band.  I’m especially impressed with some of the guitar work.

J:  Yeah, every night...and I say that on stage , that I’m lucky to play with these guys ..

G2G:  I’m sure you hear all the time that you have a Layne Staley quality to your vocal approach, possibly mixed with some Chris Cornell….is that something conscious on your part, especially based on the sort of sound the band comes across with, or is this just who you sound like?

J:  I made a conscious effort to sing in the same vein as Layne, I liked how he did things... 

G2G:  You do a lot of the lyrics for the band, correct?

J:  Yes, I do all the lyrics ..

G2G:  Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’d have to say you must spend a lot of time being depressed!  (Laughing)  Seriously, there is a lot of heavy emotion and anger and misery in some of these songs, right?  Or am I missing the point of a lot of this?  I’m old, remember….

J: Well, I’ve never been one to write a song about tits and getting drunk, so...you know..

G2G:  A couple of songs really stand out for me when listening to Devil In The Lake.  First, can you tell me about one of the more laid-back songs, musically, but one of the more intense songs, lyrically…”Hit Of Red”….

J: During the recording of the album my best friend Tony was killed  by a drunk guy at a party with a gun.. My way of therapy was writing that song.

G2G:  I also love the “ballad” of the album, “You And I”.   It’s kind of an odd song, really….there’s no chorus to it, right?  You just go right through it, kind of like a poem over music, with no repeated theme or lyrical segment….

J: We did a demo with those lyrics and it just made sense to keep it that way and not add or change anything . It says what it needs to say.


G2G: I’ve heard people say that “Man Of God” is an anti-religion song, but I don’t take that away from the song at all.  Am I missing something again, or is this people reading things into a song that just aren’t there?

J: M.o.G. is about your relationship with whatever you believe in and being a man of faith in that regard. Be a man of your OWN faith. Don’t let a single person in the world tell you different.



G2G: Is that personal interpretation on the part of the listener part of the beauty of music?  Regardless of the style, I think people can take away from a song what they want to…and sometimes they do just that, coming up with some VERY out of left field interpretations of songs….
  
J: That’s the beauty of music… and how you connect with the listener..

G2G: Before I move completely away from “Man Of God”,  I was curious about the remix at the end of the album.  To me, it has a very Nine Inch Nails kind of feel to it.  Why a remix?

J: Some of our favorite bands are from the 90’s where they did remixes a lot , so we decided to bring it back.

G2G:  Okay, you knew it was coming.  Where in the world did Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” come from?! 

J:  That was one of the songs the guys knew and played during the auditions.. it was fun so we kept it around.  

G2G:  Please tell me you play it live…I really want to hear it live….
  
J:  Yes, absolutely...

G2G: Alright, let’s change gears completely for a minute.  In the pictures I’ve seen of you on-line, in press kits, and in some video footage, it appears you have assembled quite the body art collection.  How long have you been inking yourself?
  
J:  Since I was 16 with a fake I.D. and 20 dollars in my pocket

G2G:  Any particularly odd pieces?
  
J: A light saber on my finger.

G2G: Ever have one that you said, “yep, gotta go back and get that covered up!”

J:  I’ve contemplated covering up one of my first tattoos only because it look shitty, but I haven’t done it.. it’s a badge of honor of my first tattoo. Plus its an A.I.C. tattoo...

G2G: Without naming names or burning bridges, have you worked with anyone on a musical level yet who just made you stop and go, “man, what a bunch of ego-maniacal pricks!”

J: I plead the Fifth

G2G: On the flipside, anyone who has really taken you guys under their wings and said, “hey, how can we help you?”
  
J: We just got done doing a run with Tantric and the guys we’re incredibly supportive and great to get along with.

G2g: Every band gets asked this question, so I have to ask you now…have you had your Spinal Tap moment yet?  Gotten totally lost backstage, had a major equipment malfunction…maybe couldn’t get out of the alien pod on-stage…something truly Tap-esque yet?

J:  Oh, yeah...I dropped my wireless mic jumping over a barricade on a concrete floor and that was the end of it.

G2G: If you couldn’t be doing this what would you be doing?  What’s your dream job…or are those two different questions?

J:  Owning a record store...it’s all about the vinyl!!

G2G; Ever thought of throwing in the towel?
  
J: No..

G2G: Realistically, how far can E&E go? 
  
J: As far as it can.. as long as we keep plugging away, we will progress...

G2G:  Do people even buy music any longer?  My wife and I were just talking about this and I argue that with Pandora and Slacker Radio and iHeartRadio, and even YouTube, people can narrow their listening preferences so much that they don’t even have to purchase music now and can still listen to pretty much whatever they want whenever they want.

J:  Yes, people still do buy stuff.  Jack White just broke a record sales for vinyl for the last 30 years...

G2G: How do you even make a living?  Something has to change somewhere, right?
  
J: Laughter...

G2G:  Alright, outta left field random “this or that” kind of questions for you….ready?

Van Halen with David Lee Roth or Sammy Hagar?  (We all pretend Gary Charone wasn’t ever in the band and VH3 doesn’t exist)

J: Neither.. not a Van Halen fan. (Laughing)

G2G:  Ouch!  Okay...Ozzy or Dio in Black Sabbath?

J: Ozzy..

G2G: Bush BEFORE Gavin Rossdale was with Gwen Stefani, Bush AFTER Rossdale was with Stefani, or Bush BECAUSE Rossdale is with Stefani?

J: Before… I loved Bush from the beginning  

G2G: Nickelback…why all the hate?

J: Because they make a bunch of money and sell out arenas, so every one’s jealous..


G2G: Pearl Jam’s “Ten” or Nirvana’s “Nevermind”?

J: PJ Ten ..

G2G:  Demon Hunter or Five Finger Death Punch?

J: 5FDP..

G2G: Journey or Foreigner?

J: Don’t stop believin !!!

G2G: Prince….musical genius or one weird dude?

J: Musical genius

G2G:  What is your biggest guilty pleasure, musically?  Who would people NEVER guess you are into?

J: Maroon 5

G2G: When people come to see you live…which I get the chance to see you and hang with you guys in a couple of weeks when you play with Emphatic…what do you hope they take away from and Emperors & Elephants show?

J:  That what they just saw was genuine..

G2G: How do fans stay in touch with you?  I’m sure you guys are all social media savvy, correct

J: Facebook, Instagram… we’re all over social media...  We have a website up now, too, at http://emperorsandelephants.com/

Well, there you have it, folk...not a lotta trash-talking going on, but a pretty cool, to-the-point, little interview with Jesse.  If you haven't done so, make sure you check out Devil In The Lake and get out and support Emperors & Elephants when they are out on the road this summer and fall.  

Back to Talkin' Trash

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

ARSON CITY "Not Coming Home"

(c) 2014 Independent Release

  1. City Of Fire
  2. Frankenstein
  3. Not Coming Home
  4. Stop Us Now
  5. Too Close
  6. Not Coming Home (acoustic)
Patrick Michael Wilson--Lead Vocals
Mark Beckenahauer--Guitar, Programming
Eric Whitney--Guitar
Matt Oliver--Bass
Matt Denker--Drums

Omaha's Arson City return with their second EP in a year with their brand new release, Not Coming Home.  For the uninitiated, Arson City is Patrick Michael Wilson, the former lead singer of Emphatic, with the rest of the band (Mark, Eric, Matt, and Matt) all being members of The Wreckage.  (To make things a bit more confusing, if you really want to, The Wreckage's former lead singer, Grant Kendrick, is now the lead singer of Emphatic...).  I'm really not 100% sure of the dynamics of why who isn't in what band now, and I really don't care, because the result is a pretty good band, Emphatic...and DAMN GREAT BAND in Arson City!

 Things kick off on the new EP by jumping straight into the music this time, with no odd little intros to set the stage.  "City of Fire" is a blistering, high voltage rocker with plenty of distorted guitar and thunderous drums, courtesy of Matt Denker who is a monster behind the kit, to get your head banging right from the start.  Wilson comes snarling in with his vocals firmly shifted into the lower register as the band pretty well sets up who they are and paints for listeners a portrait of what it is to be a citizen of Arson City.  "Frankenstein" keeps the monster rolling (yes, pun INTENDED), with more chunky, crunchy metallic guitar, Wilson's angst-driven vocals, and a solid bottom end on this song about a relationship that "cuts me into pieces, and every piece of me is yours", eventually changing the person into a "darker creature" and "another Frankenstein".

The band shifts directions a bit with the decidedly more radio-friendly "Not Coming Home".  Two versions of this song are featured on the EP of the same name, with this first version being the full-band version (the latter version is a fully acoustic rendering).  Written by guitarist Eric Whitney, with lyrics by Wilson, the song has a story-teller quality to it that so many truly great songs do.  Wilson allows his vocals to take on a more emotional, less angry, quality on this acoustic based ballad about leaving one's past behind, both literally and figuratively.  The song features one of the catchiest lyrical turns I have heard in some time with the chorus's "two black boots and one suitcase" line.  Emphatic fans are going to try to draw a parallel between this song and Emphatic's "Put Down The Drink" as far as style and musical approach, but "Not Coming Home" is the superior song in nearly every way, no matter how good or how popular "...Drink" was.  Good, good stuff here that should be all over modern rock radio and should dominate Octane's Big Uns Countdown show.

"Stop Us Now" returns the band to their chugga-chugga-start-stop-start again style of modern metallic rock goes, taking the listener back inside the walls of the post-apocalyptic world Arson City has created with their image and their music.  Oliver really shines here as the bass is prevalent throughout the track, rumbling through the seams where the guitars and Wilson's vocals allow other sounds to leak through.

The big shock of the album for many people will be the band's decision to cover "Too Close".  Originally performed by Alex Clare, "Too Close" is given the Arson City treatment here, with the gravel in Wilson's vocals adding the perfect edge to a much heavier version of the top 10 pop hit.  I was skeptical at first, but once I got a chance to actually listen to the song, I have to admit I was wrong in my initial apprehension.  Arson City makes the song their own and it flows perfectly here, especially leading into the album closer, which is an acoustic version of the title track.

I do wish that we had about three or four more songs here, but in this day and age, EP's seem to be the way a lot of bands go...if they bother to release physical CDs at all...so I am glad to have this one.  As you can see, my copy was signed by the band when I got the chance to see them open recently for Boba Flex.  Do yourself a favor and seek this band out in the live setting, not only so you can also get your disc signed, but because this band puts on the BEST live performance I have seen from a smaller/regional act, and they actually out-perform the majority of the nationals I have seen in a club setting.  Wilson and Bechekhauer dominate the stage with their presence, and once they bring out the Arson City Horror Squad drum corps (dressed in riot gear and gas masks), the SHOW IS ON!  It is not to be missed, folks, seriously.

The packaging is simple, as you would expect from a small indie production, but that takes very little away from the greatness of the overall product.  Get your copy NOW...you won't be disappointed.  You can follow them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/arsoncity or check out the music at http://www.reverbnation.com/arsoncity .

It is going to be a steep climb if anyone is going to knock Arson City and Not Coming Home off the top of the heap as far as true independent releases go for 2014!

Rating:  Flat out crankable!  Great music from some of the best guys I have met in the industry on any level, with a killer live show to top it all off.  Crank this to 9.

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Sunday, August 10, 2014

KIX "Rock Your Face Off"

(c) 2014 Loud & Proud Records

  1. Wheels In Motion
  2. You're Gone
  3. Can't Stop The Show
  4. Rollin' In Honey
  5. Rock Your Face Off
  6. All The Right Things
  7. Dirty Girls
  8. Inside Outside Inn
  9. Mean Misadventure
  10. Love Me With Your Top Down
  11. Tail On The Wag
  12. Rock N Roll Showdown
Steve Whiteman--Vocals, Harmonica
Ronnie "10/10" Younkins--Guitars
Bryan "Damage" Forsythe--Guitars
Mark Schenker--Bass
Jimmy Chalfant--Drums, Vocals

Nineteen years.  That's how long it has been since Kix released a studio album.  Heck, there are people who weren't even born yet that can vote now...that's how long 19 years is!  But, you had to wonder if the top dog of the B-level hair bands wasn't going to take a stab at a new record at some point, especially with the release of their live record a couple years ago.  And, now in 2014, we find that Kix did have (at least) one more trick up their sleeve, as they have released Rock Your Face Off to their surprisingly large fan base.

A couple of weeks ago, the band teased the album's release with a lyrics video of the lead single, "Love Me With Your Top Down", and judging by the internet chatter I observed on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites, the initial impression was mixed, at best.  While I certainly didn't think the song was a world changer, it was still a Kix song, without question, from the vocals of Whiteman to the catchy-yet-cheesy lyrical approach and the AC/DC-meets-a-barroom-hair band musical approach.  I had hope, but I wasn't going to let that hope turn into hype at that point.  But, once I actually received the disc and popped it in, a smile spread across my face and I was sold.  Kix was back.

True, founding member Donnie Purnell is gone from his position as bass player and chief songwriter, and that meant the band was already behind the 8-Ball to a degree, at least in terms of carrying on the musical tradition of the band.  It's one thing to go out and play all the songs you have been playing for years, and still pull it off.  But its quite another thing to write new material that still sounds like your band, especially if one of the key songwriting ingredients is gone.  For the most part, Kix manages to capture the essence of who and what they have always been on this new record.

Right from the start, the album is front-loaded with the best material on the record.  "Wheels In Motion" jumps out of the speakers with an urgent tempo and rhythm that immediately throws the listener back about 23 years, as this song is very reminiscent of the approach used on the Hot Wire album.  "You're Gone" keeps things going, but this time with a more mid-tempo track that features a throbbing bass line throughout and Whiteman's instantly recognizable sneering snarl slinking along, snagging the listener's attention, especially on the chorus.  "Can't Stop The Show" is another great track, this time taking a more simplified approach during the verses, using an out front drum-and-bass delivery to support Whiteman before the guitars come ringing in.  Three-for-three is a great way to start things off, to be sure!

"Rollin' In Honey" slips off the mark just a bit.  Lyrically and thematically it is everything Kix has always been, but the music is missing something.  It's just doesn't grab my attention all that well for some reason.  Not a skipper, but a weaker point in an otherwise great first half of the record.  The same can be said of the title track, "Rock Your Face Off", which seems like a statement kind of song from a band who has no reason to make a statement.  Yeah, we get it...you're in your 50's and you still rock.  Got it.  No need to state it or put it to music.  Honestly, if there was one song I was going to completely remove from the album, it would probably be this one, and this is as close to skip material as there is on the record.

"All The Right Things" quickly rights the ship, however, and is probably my favorite track here.  Starting off with a dark, bluesy guitar riff, this song reminds me a lot of vintage 70's era AC/DC in the way it starts, before the jangly Kix approach to music slips in and takes over in an insanely catchy song that comes so very close to capturing the magic of the band in their Midnite Dynamite-Blow My Fuse-Hot Wire span.  Just a great, great song.  

"Dirty Girls" is a simplistic, yet fun, song that really needs no explanation, as the title  pretty much says everything that can be said about this uptempo rocker that, again, really has that 70's ear AC/DC thumbprint on the music.  Again, this is one of the better songs here and really finds the band at least touching, if not fully grasping, that Kix musical magic from the late 80's/early 90's efforts.  The same can be said for album closer, "Rock & Roll Showdown", which wraps things up perfectly and gives the listener the hope that perhaps there is one more great album left in this underappreciated band that I still contend was one of the most entertaining and consistent bands of the 80's.

There are a couple of entries in the complaint department here.  One, the "big" ballad isn't present here, which is a bummer. No, I didn't expect "Don't Close Your Eyes II" or anything like that, but "Inside Outside Inn" just doesn't really hold my attention all that well.  It's not horrible, but I doubt anyone will rush right out to download this as a single, either.  The other real issue I have here is that some of the songs seem thin, like there are instruments missing.  You know what I'm talking about...when a song just doesn't feel "full".  Sometimes this happens with albums on small, independent labels that have no real production budget to speak of, and I'm wondering if that isn't the case here.  "Mean Misadventure", for example, is a solid Kix track, it just doesn't have any "beef" to it.  "Tail On The Wag" is another good track that kind of feels flat, for lack of a better term.  I don't know if this is the absence of Purnell showing through, if its a production thing, or if it was an intentional stripping of the sound, but for me it takes a couple of pretty good songs and leaves them below the par of the rest of the album.

In the end, Kix's return is a very good, very solid one, if not career re-defining.  Not as good as Blow My Fuse, Midnight Dynamite, or Hot Wire, but certainly better than their first two records and $how Bu$ine$$, this record will keep Kix fans more than happy for a long time, I suspect, and will be given consideration for many Top 20 lists by fans of the genre in general.

Rating:  Crank this to 8 and let the good times roll once again!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

VALERIE "Dangerous"

(c) 2014 Independent Release

  1. Night After Night
  2. Hearts On The Line
  3. Dangerous
BT Valerie--Guitars, Lead Vocals
Augustus Clark--Bass, Vocals
Erlend Omdal--Drums, Vocals
Magnus Christiansen--Guitars, Vocals

Norway's Valerie returns with a self-released EP called Dangerous.  One look at the track-listing and you have to know I was frustrated, as only three songs make their way onto this limited edition release (only 500 CD's were printed).  THREE SONGS!  Let's be honest here...if you are only going to put out three songs and still call in an EP, it better be good.

It is.

Leading things off is the "single" from this release, "Night After Night".  Showcasing a somewhat AOR approach to their melodic hard rock, Valerie kicks things off right here, as "Night After Night" is a solid song that does exactly what it is intended to do: it gets the listener primed and ready for the band's second album, which is being financed in part through sales of this EP.  Ahhh...now I get it!  Anyway, "Night After Night" starts off with an acapella intro, followed up with slick, 80's-influenced guitars that are reminiscent of those used by acts such as John Parr, Survivor, and the like back when AOR and melodic rock could still get airplay in the States.  For those who have the band's first, self-titled release, this song is very much in the same vein and is likely to keep that fan base happy.

The next two tracks are exclusive to this EP and will not be featured on the new full-length record (at least that's the plan for now).  "Hearts On The Line" is very reminiscent of the style of rock played by fellow countrymen, Stage Dolls.  Starting off with an "Unskinny Bop" styled bass line, this song could actually be slipped onto a Stage Dolls record and a lot of people may not even notice.  There is some excellent guitar work here, especially on the scorching solo, and the tight vocal harmonies and locked-in rhythm section really drive this track, which is my favorite of the three here (although all are good).  "Dangerous" rocks a bit harder than the previous two tracks, shedding the slickness of the guitars from the opening track, and adding a bit of grit to the backing vocals.

The packaging, as you would guess, is EXTREMELY simple, with the front cover artwork (pictured above) being the only adornment on the cardboard sleeve the disc arrived in.  The back is nothing but the band's logo, tracklisting, writing credits, and band line-up.  Short and too the point.  It is obvious the band spent as little in the packaging as they possibly could, again largely because they are using money from this effort to finance the second full-length record.

If you haven't checked out the band before, I would probably suggest you go for their debut record, Valerie, as it is 8 songs long and offers a bit more bang for your buck.  However, if you are already a fan and would like to snag a limited edition collectible, Dangerous is a fine, if extremely short listen.

Rating:  At only three songs, I hesitated to give it an official rating, but if forced, I would say this is crankable to the 7.5 range.  Nothing overly spectacular, but very solid and a fun listen.

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Monday, July 21, 2014

LOVERBOY "Unfinished Business"

(c) 2014 Loverboy Music

  1. Fire Me Up
  2. Counting The Nights
  3. Ain't Such A Bad Thing
  4. Come Undone
  5. Slave
  6. What Makes You So Special
  7. War Bride
  8. Doin' It The Hard Way
  9. You Play The Star
  10.  Crack Of The Whip
Mike Reno--Vocals
Paul Dean--Guitar, Vocals
Doug Johnson--Keyboards
Ken "Spider" Sinneave--Bass
Matt Frenette--Drums

Everywhere you look today, classic 80's bands are reuniting to record new albums, join festivals, or go on tour.  There seems to be no limit to which bands are going to attempt some form of comeback or another, whether taking a serious run at rejuvenating a career or simply going back to doing what they love, these bands have met with varying degrees of success.

Loverboy is no stranger to the reunion thing, having released a new studio album, Just Getting Started, as recently as 2007, in addition to their combination re-recordings/new recordings album, Rock N Roll Revival, from 2012.  With Unfinished Business, Loverboy gives its fans an album of new "old" material, with some of these songs having been written almost 40 years ago, with others scattered throughout writing sessions from the past couple of decades.  Many of these songs were partially recorded from sessions for the band's first few albums, some to a larger extent than others, so in some instances you get songs that are half 1980's/half 2014 as far as performance goes.  

4/5 of the original line-up remains intact (long-time bass player, Scott Smith, died in a freak boating accident in 2000), and it is obvious from the band was intent on giving the fans and album that is still 100% Loverboy, for the good or the bad.  Not attempting to sound modern, making no excuses for their past (or for Reno's infamous headbands!), and pouring themselves completely into the music that they love and are known for, Loverboy actually pulls off one of the more surprisingly enjoyable reunion discs I have listened to in some time, even if it isn't made up of new material.  I say "surprisingly enjoyable" because I really lost touch with Loverboy after the first four classic records, Loverboy, Get Lucky, Keep It Up, and Lovin' Every Minute Of It.  After that, starting with Wildside, I just felt the band lost a lot of it's edge, became too poppy and too concerned with Top 40 hits, and I just never really bothered going back.

Unfinished Business intrigue me because of its different approach.  From the opening notes of "Fire Me Up", I just sensed that the band felt like they had bullets left in the classic era's guns, and set out to deliver on unfinished promise with a couple of these tunes.  A few sound like they were possibly even radio-worthy back in the day, while a couple probably should have been left in the Loverboy vault or mixed into a Loverboy boxed set if such a thing ever surfaced.  

On the good end, we have songs like the previously mentioned "Fire Me Up', which is a great example of a song that has pretty much everything going for it, as far as Loverboy fans would be concerned, and I really don't know how this song didn't make an album.  Reno sounds great, Dean works some nice guitar magic, and the keys are nicely placed between the guitars and the solid rhythm section, giving it a truly classic 80's feel.  I'm even more surprised that the following track, "Countin' The Nights" didn't make it to the radio, or at least to a movie soundtrack, because it really is that good to these ears, with crisp production and some great guitar tones.  "What Makes You So Special" is another solid 80's rocker with the classic guitar tone of that era, and is easily one of my favorites here, and again I have to wonder why this track missed the cut for Get Lucky or possibly Keep It Up, which are the albums I'm guessing this was likely recorded for.  "Doin' It The Hard Way" is a song that is pure Loverboy all the way, and again, is one of the stronger songs here, and album closer "Crack Of The Whip" sounds like something from the Lovin' Every Minute Of It sessions, with a solid mid-80's sound that works pretty well here, especially when juxtaposed with "You Play The Star" which sounds like it came straight off the first record.

A couple of songs don't work as well as the best material here.  For instance, I really am not a fan of the ballad, "Come Undone".  First of all, it sounds like it is still in demo form, which is an instant annoyance for me.  Secondly, there are just some weird keyboard effects here that remind me of so many bad 80's songs (and laser sound effects!) that I somewhat cringe when I hear them.  "War Bride" has a lot of potential, but this is an example of one of the tracks that I think the band just didn't really ever finish, and finds the band trying to get too deep lyrically and totally missing the mark of what Loverboy is best known for.  Reno sounds very strong, and the keyboards have an electric piano, rather than cheesy 80's synth sound to them, and even the bass line has a cool throb to it, but it just kind of goes nowhere and is really about two minutes too long (it clocks in over 6 minutes total).   Some judicious editing would have helped "War Bride" a lot, in my opinion.  "Slave", which features some great guitar work from Dean, sounds like an odd "Hot For Teacher"-meets-spaghetti-western-guitar combination that I just don't get.  For his part, Franette pulls off some slick double-time drummin here, but it can't save this odd track.

The main problem I have with this album is in the production.  At times you can hear static in the tracks, and the mix is just a tad muddy in places.  For example, "Ain't Such A Bad Thing" is a pretty good rocker with a catchy chorus and nice guitar work, but you can hear hiss and crackle throughout the song.  Now, I don't know if this was an intentional attempt to give the album an 80's feel, as this is definitely not crystal clear, crisp 2014 production at all, but if it was intentional, it was not a good idea.  It definitely doesn't make the record unlistenable by any means, but to deny that there are some production issues would be dishonest.

The band, and especially Reno and Dean, are in mostly excellent form here.  Mike Reno's vocals are spot on, sounding like not a year has passed since he was singing about "Lovin' Every Minute Of It", or "The Kid Is Hot Tonight", and the guitar work on the best tracks here is excellent.  I have long thought that Dean didn't get the amount of respect as a guitar player that he deserved, largely because he was overshadowed by Reno and because videos of the band's songs just never really showcased Dean (check out his solo album if you can find it...you will hear his talent in full force).  Due to th old-plus-new format of the tracks it is a bit difficult to know what is recently recorded and what is original instrumentation, but it doesn't matter much because nothing is glaringly bad, although the keys do really date the sound of some of these tracks.

I think with a bit bigger budget (this record was apparently all self-compiled and released on Loverboy Music) and perhaps a bit more care in cleaning up the production on the older portions of the songs that the band chose to leave intact, this album could have been even better.  As it stands, it is a solid listen, especially for long-time fans of the band.  It won't likely convert a lot of people to join the church of Loverboy, but it's not likely there are a lot of 18-25 year olds out there seeking what a band like Loverboy has to offer, either.

Rating:  Crank this solid effort to a very respectable 7.0, but I hope the band is done combing through the leftovers for material, because I'm betting this is the cream of the crop.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

GUARDIAN "Almost Home"

(c) 2014 G-Man Records

  1. Boom She Said
  2. The Real Me
  3. Little Things
  4. Wonderful
  5. California Rain
  6. Show Us What You Got (Interlude)
  7. King Of Fools
  8. The Calling (Interlude)
  9. Paranoia Kills
  10. Price We Pay
  11. Free
  12. Requiem Calavera (Interlude)
  13. Almost Home
Jamie Rowe--Vocals
Tony Palacios--Gutars
David Bach--Bass
Karl Ney--Drums
Jamey Perrenot--Guitar

Guardian returns with their first full-length album in SEVENTEEN YEARS, with the Kickstarter-funded Almost Home.  There have been teaser releases prior to this, most notably Three To Get Ready, a three-song EP that came out in 2011, but little to nothing had come from the Guardian camp in so long that most people had assumed the band was dead and buried, especially with front man Rowe now reunited with his other band, AdrianGale.  

Dead and buried, they are not. Guardian is definitely alive, and mostly well.

I say "mostly well" because while there are things to like about Almost Home, there are things that I think will frustrate all but the most ardent supporters of the band. 

Let me start off by saying that for anyone who is looking for another Fire & Love or Miracle Mile, there is very little here that is going to satisfy your palette.  In fact, nothing here has the "hair" feel to it, although there are a few melodic rock moments.  Instead what we are given with Almost Home is a collection of songs that range from the modern hard rock feel of "Boom She Said" to the bluesy-yet-still-modern lead single, "The Real Me" to the straight up acoustic ballad, "Almost Home"...and a bit of everything in between.  I'm not sure "eclectic" really covers the overall feel of this album, as I felt somewhat jerked all over the place as I listened to this record the first several times, never really given a chance to find a groove to set my attention into.  For some that's a great thing; for some a distraction.  For me, it was mildly annoying at first, mostly because I spent so much time searching for the Guardian of my youth, but never really found it (though it does come close in spots).  That irritation dissipated after a time once I figured out where the best tracks were located and filtered out those elements that really do nothing for me.  

To be fair, this is a band that has morphed (some say matured) with every release since Rowe replaced Paul Cawley after the oft-forgotten debut record, First Watch.  Guardian has gone from the hair metal of Fire & Love to the more melodic hard rock of Miracle Mile, to the largely acoustic Swing, Swang, Swung, to the modern rock of both Buzz and Bottle Rocket, so for the band to shape-shift once again didn't come as a huge surprise to me.  However, to find the band trying to cover SO MANY bases all in one record was a bit of a shock to the system.  

"Boom She Said" kicks things off with a funky little bluegrass-styled guitar intro and NASA control tower recordings before punching you in the face with a massive modern rock guitar riff and thundering drums, pulling Rowe's raspy vocals into the fray in a frantic rocker that had me nodding my head and grinning from ear-to-ear.  No, this wasn't hair metal, but dangit, these guys still HAVE IT!  

The next track, "The Real Me" still rocks to a degree, but it is more in a bluesy-yet-still-uptempo style that I wasn't prepared for following "Boom...".  To be completely honest, I don't particularly care for this song and generally skip it, largely because of the way the song is structured and Jamie's use of the "aahh" sound that drives me nuts.  Petty?  Probably, but I really just don't like this song and would NOT have used it as the lead single because I don't think it really reflects the rest of the album that well.

"Little Things" starts quietly, building volume, if not intensity, as it follows a simple drum and bass line placed just below an equally simple acoustic guitar riff.  Rowe's vocals are powerful and emotive here, taking us through the first chorus before a slide guitar shimmies in for a brief appearance, then disappears just as quickly.  The song is nearly half-over before the "electricity" is added to the song and the track comes alive.  With its somewhat 90's alternative meets 80's ballad approach, this is easily one of my favorite tracks, as it really shows the musical skill of this band when it is firing on all cylinders.

"Wonderful" continues the alt-rock sound, especially in the tone of the guitars, reminding me of the Newsboys to a degree.  Rowe's vocals are spot-on once again, and the music, while not full of screaming guitars, rocks enough to satisfy the melodic rock crowd, yet maintains enough pop sensibility in its richly layered vocals and a song structure that borders on modern praise-and-worship, to keep the mellower crowd engaged.  Again, a top five track for me.  

(If you are keeping score, three of my personal favorites are found in the first four tracks...)

"California Rain" is next up and it sounds like a Santana song to me, complete with Spanish guitar and a 1970's flavor that is unmistakable.  While musically on target, this is a style that does nothing for me, and I honestly skip it now.  

"Show Us What You Got" is an all-too-short little shred fest from Mr. Palacios that leads nicely into the other true rocker on this album, "King Of Fools".  This track is as close to "old" Guardian as the record ever gets and it is a great track.  Palacios goes off on a great solo run after the second chorus, and Ney and Bach are amazingly solid in the rhythm department on this song.  Edging slightly past "Boom She Said", this, for me, is the pinnacle of the album, and, as I said before, I would have been perfectly happy with an entire album full of this 90's-era Aerosmith-inspired guitar rock.  

Another interlude follows, but it is a complete waste of time for me, as it consists entirely of a phone call on an answering machine.  Auto-skip would be a great invention for me at this point, as I would program that sucker to blitz right past this every single time.

"Paranoia Kills" is the last of the big rock numbers on the record, and it is another decent modern rocker with a snappy beat and distorted guitars and vocals, with some effects thrown into the mix for good measure.  This track reminds me a lot of the sound the band was chasing on Bottle Rocket, mixing guitar rock with modern instrumentation and production.  An excellent song that I would say is probably my third favorite here, just behind "Boom..." and just ahead of "Little Things".

"Price We Pay" is another great song that also slots in with the best of the songs here.  More of a mid-tempo melodic rocker, this song and it's successor, "Free", finish off the best of the record for me.  In fact the six songs I've indicated as my personal favorites would have made for a KILLER EP, with the interlude "Show Us What You Got" being tossed in to take up space.

The final interlude here is another total waste of time and disc space for me, and once again, I immediately skip it.

Album closer, and title track, "Almost Home" is a great acoustic track that finds the band in contemplative mode, reminding me a lot of Extreme's "Hole Hearted" in some ways, and is an excellent way to round out the record.

As a Kickstarter backer of the project, I have the digital download version AND the CD version of this album, so I am able to comment on packaging as well.  We have a digipack here (the norm now), with a 12 page booklet filled with band member photos, lyrics, and credits.  The production is top notch, with Perrenot (who has been a band member since 2008) doing an excellent job of keeping the record fresh and crisp sounding with no muddiness or loss of voice for any of the instruments.  Kudos, Jamey...

As I said way back at the beginning of this review, the record is mostly good.  If I could, I would drop "The Real Me", "California Rain", and two of the three interludes, which I think would leave me with a neat-and-tidy 8 song record with everything being very good to great.  As it is, the record isn't horrible by any means, but it is likely not what Guardian fans of old thought they were going to get.  I like it, but I honestly prefer the recent AdrianGale album, Sucker Punch, to this one.  Given more time, and some subtle use of the skip button, Almost Home may grow on me further.  As it stands, it is a top 5 Guardian disc for me, ahead of both Bottle Rocket and Buzz, but in no way threatening Fire & Love or Miracle Mile for catalog supremacy.

Rating:  Crank this to a 7 and let's hope this isn't the last we have heard from this talented band that can still bring it when they want to.