Nerdly Natterings

Several people have asked me why I haven’t put any of my review work on this site so I decided to throw a couple at you. Most are reviews of the latest discs of artists I like, and at least one is regarding an artist I’ve raved about in this blog previously. I hope you enjoy….

Sal Valentino – Come Out Tonight
Fat Pete Records

Though musical career resurrections happen all of the time, rarely are they anything more than a desperate last grasp at the brass ring, and, probably more importantly, a last chance to grab some often-much-deserved cash to live on. Only rarely, as in the examples of the recent comebacks of Solomon Burke, Howard Tate, and Kate Bush, is the resultant music actually transcendent and comparable to the past highpoints of their respective careers. To those artists above add another name: Sal Valentino.

Don’t know who that is, you say? Well, though his name could be used for a character on the Sopranos and I am confident Silvio Dante (that’s Mr. Little Steven to you) would welcome him with open arms, Valentino is actually a certified rock and roll legend with an established hit resume. As the lead singer for The Beau Brummels, Valentino racked up a few ’60’s hits like “Laugh, Laugh” and “Just A Little” as well as becoming a pop culture icon, lending his voice to an episode of the Flintstones and starring with the band in a few cheesy movies. More notably, he and the rest of the Brummels created two of the ’60’s most influential records: Triangle and Bradley’s Barn. Though overlooked at the time, these albums were later rightfully acknowledged as influential to the country rock movement which included The Byrds, Gram Parsons, Buffalo Springfield and others. In fact, Triangle and Bradley’s Barn just about out-Byrds the Byrds, giving McGuinn and crew the inspiration and competition needed to spur them to greatness. While lost and forgotten to the public, musicians and music-heads then as well as now have held these two records in the highest esteem.

After the Brummels split, Valentino continued his career for awhile, fronting bands such as the R&B flavored Stoneground and the rockier Valentino, but eventually left the business entirely. Eventually lured out of retirement for some reunion shows and oldies fests, Valentino expressed a desire to record again and up stepped Texas legend-in-his-own-right Freddie Steady Krc to help produce. Multi-talented as can be, Krc not only played guitar and wrote a couple of songs for this effort, but also helped Valentino bring it to the attention of his record label.

Though Krc does play a major role in the creation of this CD, rest assured it is the marvelous vocal talents of Valentino that make it such a resounding success.Talk about an artist not missing a beat! While Valentino’s voice has obviously aged, it has aged extremely well and only a few years of additional wear and tear can be found on his wonderful instrument. It’s almost as if staying away from singing for roughly two decades has given his marvelous voice a chance to rest and avoid the wear and tear it would have received if continually used. Valentino also uses his return to the recording arena to remind us how good of a songwriter he is, contributing three numbers including the tender “Catherine I Do” to the proceedings. His interpretive powers and taste in song choices are also at their peak, as he manages to choose both classic (Jimmy Webb’s The Highwaymen and Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues) and modern (Bill Lloyd and Peter Case’s For The Longest Time) songs and make them his own. I mean, his version of Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues almost makes you forget Cash’s own version, which is no easy task.

I fell in love with this CD as soon as I heard it, as it’s blend of folk and country rock are the same engaging mix Valentino brough to the world when he was with the Brummels. If you are a fan of country rock with the emphasis on rock and want to hear a master who brings all his years of living to his performances, check out this CD and bear witness to the re-birth of a legend. As far as I am concerned, this CD marks the comeback of the year, end of story.

Roman Candle – The Wee Hours Review

For those who have followed the band since its’ formation in Chapel Hill in 1997 or thereabouts, this release on V2 is another version of the album Says Pop, which was independently released by the band in 2002. While there are plenty of similarities between the original album and this one, there are significant differences as well and this CD is well worth investigating whether you have or have not heard the first version.

From the first blast of the album, the song Something Left To Say, you know you are in for a hell of a ride. Sounding a bit like an Oasis song the Gallagher brothers should have written but couldn’t, the song encapsulates the best qualities of the band into a four-and-a-half-minute slice of pop beauty. While power poppy as hell, the band also shows off a rustic side, adding another dimension to their sound. I guess you could call it soulful Southern pop with a slight Brit feel but I just call it captivating.

The band itself has had an interesting pathway to their major label debut. Brothers Skip (guitars, vocals) and Logan Matheny (drums) grew up in Wilkesboro, NC, with a family that was real big into country music and eventually formed a band when they attended the same college. A loose aggregation at first, the lineup began to solidify within a few years but eventually broke up when Skip and his wife Timshel (who plays organ and electric piano with the band) moved to Oregon. A chance meeting with Denver Broncos defensive end Treyor Pryce (credited as executive producer on this CD) led to Pryce offering a contract to Skip to be an artist on Pryce’s new label. The band reunited to take advantage of the deal, recorded Says Pop, and released it in 2002. Major label Hollywood Records heard about the record and showed a lot of interest in the band, but Roman Candle was never signed. Eventaully returning to North Carolina, the band eventually met pop wunderkind Chris Stamey, hired him to produce and rework the songs from Says Pop and signed with V2 for this album.

While the band has always had a very accessible sound, Stamey has heightened the “radio” factor here, not that this is geared specifically to take-over the radio. Stamey has just managed to take what is best about the band, remove any of the dodgy parts and polish them up a little bit. The result is a debut album that sounds really mature – that the songs have been allowed to “age” may have helped as well. There is nothing at all tentative about the CD. This is a CD from a band that knows what they want to sound like and are confident with what they are putting out.

In all, this is a great CD full of great songs with an interesting and refreshing rock/country hybrid distinguishing the band from just about everything out there. If The Band started out today, they could have very well sounded just like this. Pick it up now.

Yayhoos – Put The Hammer Down
Lakeside Lounge Records

Who said records have to be serious and make big statements? Eric Ambel and the rest of his star-studded Yayhoos are determined to remind bands like Wilco that they don’t have to disappear up their own ass to make a great record. In fact, the Yayhoos are only reminding us what bands like the Faces were trying to teach people years ago –
music should be about fun whether it’s country or rock or whatever the hell genre it is or what you want to call it. Once music sounds like “work” or smacks of effort, I am outta there. Gotta have heart, soul and that’s pretty much it as far as I am concerned. Thank God the Yayhoos have realized this and add a generous dollop of drunken irreverence to the proceedings. Now, if we could only get Tweedy and Farrar to pay attention…..

Anyway, whoever enjoyed the Yayhoos previous effort Fear Not The Obvious will find plenty to like on this CD. The band is intact – Eric Ambel on guitar and vocals, Dan Baird on guitar and vocals, Keith Ferguson on bass and vocals and Terry Anderson on drums and vocals – and that’s a good thing as all of them are very comfortable with each other and the proceedings here are real loose because of it. If anything, this CD is even more of a team effort than their first with all of the band swapping vocals and writing songs, though the best compositions seem to come from the pens of Baird and Anderson. While hardly anyone can compare with Ambel on guitar and Ferguson is a monster on the bass, their turns at songwriting leave a bit to be desired. But, that said, none of the songs here seem to be throwaway, even the wacky covers. Yes, as you’ve come to expect from this crew, the band has thrown in some unexpected song choices to expound upon and “Yayhoo” up. The choices for this CD are the O’Jays’ classic groover Love Train and the B-52’s late ’80’s hit Roam. Each song gets the full Yayhoo, with Love Train coming out the winner as Roam sounds a little tentative, as if all of the band weren’t totally convinced about the song.

Those looking for a big statement about the current political climate will no doubt wind up disappointed but those just looking for a fun album and a good time will find a lot here to love. It gets down to the Yayhoos doing what they do best and chugging bar rock IS what they do best. Why change the formula and get all serious when you could enjoy some seriously great RAWK? Now, take what’s left of your tax money and buy this CD!

Rory Block – The Lady and Mr. Johnson

While another gimmick-based blues album is the last thing the world and the blues genre itself needs right now, it is hard to quibble when someone with Block’s background decides to cover legendary bluesman Robert Johnson’s music. Although tributes to Johnson certainly number in the hundreds by now (and that’s just counting Eric Clapton’s stuff) Block has the distinction of being one of the first artists to showcase Johnson’s music on a regular basis for over 40 years. Yes, way back in 1964 when Block was first starting her career on the folk circuit she had already discovered the deep blues of the charismatic Johnson and had begun falling in love with it. Later on, she was mentored by Robert Lockwood Jr., one of the last blues artists to have worked with Johnson. Thanks to Lockwood’s generosity of time and spirit, Block became adept at Johnson’s style of playing as well as becoming well versed with other practitioners of the delta blues form, such as Son House.

Lockwood’s teachings have served Block well as she has been able to sustain a career through two blues booms and countless fallow periods when hardly anyone cared to know about the blues. And thanks to today’s musical climate, just about everything of historical importance gets reissued sooner or later, meaning as new audiences learn to appreciate the primal sound of Johnson and his compatriots, more acclaim will come Block’s way as she is slowly but surely recognized for her boundless talent by the public at large. Through preserving the bedrock style of Johnson, Lockwood and their peers, she has managed to connect with an audience generally more interested in electric blues and still flourish.

The only negative I see in Block’s music, and not something really related to this album specifically, is that her sound never really changes much from album to album. It is one thing to say an artist has their own sound, which Block certainly does. The other side of the coin is when the sound becomes boring, as in the case of someone like George Thorogood. The blues as a genre suffers from this problem the most. While the great number of purists don’t want the sound of the blues to change, the younger generations seeking new sounds feel the music is passe. I bring this up because although I think Block does a great job here preserving and playing Johnson’s music, I could also see people not liking it because many of her albums (which I own quite a few of) sound pretty much the same. Though I believe she is enough of a talent to define her sound and not let her sound define her, I ultimately think a lot of these blues tributes and concepts detract from the appreciation we should have of the authentic sound itself. These “special” tributes sabotage the next album.

But, I digress. And rant. Too much. The most important thing here is Block’s artistry, which is beyond reproach. She does a great job here acquitting herself on these songs and reminding the world at large why we should contiue listening to them and not lose them to the mists of time. Thanks to artists like Block, we have access to a musical heritage before hacks like Justin Timberlake destroyed music. If you like blues done well, you’ll love this CD.

Katherine Whalen – Dirty Little Secret
MC Records

After a lengthy hiatus, the chanteuse from the Jazz Squad and even better known act, The Squirrel Nut Zippers, once again emerges with an eclectic album which melds classic pop sounds with a current sensibility. But that’s not to say it has a sound like you would hear on your local pop station. Vocally, Whalen stays pretty true to the classic pop sound of the ’40’s and thereabouts, but instrumentally, the songs show off a way more modern influence, almost a lounge-y vibe which is semi-current and in vogue wherever the trendy and Euro-trash hang out. Imagine Billie Holiday or even Peggy Lee singing in this style and you’ll get an idea of what Whalen and her producer David Sale are trying to pull off.

For those who don’t remember, her band The Squirrel Nut Zippers (yeah, they were named after that classic candy from when we were kids) had a sound most music scholars would have regarded as resembling “jass” – a jazz form which was a precursor to the jazz music we now know and was very popular in the 1920’s and 1930’s. In other words, this hot jazz had a swing to it and was close to the music one would have heard during Prohibition. After a few years plying their trade in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the members of the band were able to score a deal with Mammoth Records and had a very big hit in the early days of alternative radio with a song called “Hell”. After selling millions of copies of the album which featured the hit, the band went on to record a follow-up album called Perennial Favorites. Their big follow-up single was called “Suits Are Picking Up The Bill” and, unfortunately, the suits ended up picking up the bill in reality because the fad wore off and the sales dipped way down. Eventually, one last album trickled out, band members started leaving and the Zippers were left with no zip.

With the Zippers broken up, Whalen eventually resurfaced with her Jazz Squad, which plied pretty much the same terrain as the Zippers – meaning older jazz styles. Whalen did vary up her style a little, adding a couple decades to her source material, making a change from hot jazz baby to smoky ’40’s chanteuse to good effect. Despite sales not being gangbusters, the album was an artistic triumph and just a damn good record.

Now, with producer/songwriter/instrumentalist (he plays just about every note on this CD) Sale helping her out, she has created an avant-pop hybrid which showcases her trademark retro vocal style in yet another new format. I guess by 2015 or so she will be up to disco and new wave in her seeming step-by-step assault on musical genres. Either way, this is the most interesting set yet from Whalen and one can only marvel at what this talented artist will attept next. Thankfully, we have this CD to listen to in the meantime.

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