Album Cuts

The MekonsCD
Tommy Castro & the Painkillers
Killin’ It Live
Alliance Import

Tommy Castro has been a blues-rock-soul purveyor for more than three decades. His commanding stage performances featuring blistering guitar work echoing Eric Clapton, Elvin Bishop, Elmore James, and B.B. King, as well his soul music-inspired vocals a la Otis Redding, James Brown, Ray Charles, and Wilson Pickett has put in in high demand for his playing and singing skills. His music has appeared on television, most importantly his long-standing tenure with NBC’s Comedy Showcase. From his bar room blues roots in the Bay Area to his rise in national acclaim, Tommy Castro reached his pinnacle with 2009’s Hard Believer, which he debuted under the luminary label Alligator Records. As a testament to his powerful vocals, raucous guitar display, and energetic live engagements, Killin’ It Live features a solid synopsis of Castro’s style and career.

The album, which includes eight originals, runs the gamut of his career and opens with his classic and kinetic “Make It Back to Memphis,” as found on Hard Believer. Another evergreen, 1997’s “Can’t Keep a Good Man Down,” serves as a benchmark for fortitude and topples with a searing guitar blues showcase. Taj Mahal, an influence on Castro, arranged the legendary Sleepy John Estes’ 1930 “Milk Cow Blues” into “Leaving Trunk” in 1968, which is given a steady update as a live staple of Castro’s. “Lose Lose,” from 2015’s Method to My Madness, changes gears, mining cheating blues territory, before picking up momentum with 1999’s homed-based “Calling San Francisco” and the Bo Diddley-flavored “Shakin’ the Hard Times Loose.” “Any Time Soon,” from 2005’s Soul Shaker, gives a nod to Otis Redding and the Southern soul school, balancing moody gospel music with forlorn blues before the album segues into the fan favorite, “She Wanted to Give It to Me,” from 2014’s The Devil You Know.

Tommy Castro captures his live reputation on this outing, which serves as a compendium for his brand of blues-rock with significant soul music shadings. More importantly, he offers a reason why he is lauded as one of the pillars in modern day blues music. Killin’ It Live speaks for itself: thrilling blues performances taken from a veteran catalog that could comprise more than one disc.

by Jeff Boyce

The Mekons
Glitterbeat Records

For a group of musicians as reliably difficult to categorize as The Mekons, the album Deserted is an honest tribute to their shifting personality. Jon Langford, Tom Greenhalgh, Lu Edmonds, Sally Timms, Rico Bell, and many of the other musicians familiar to the bands’ followers combine once again in the album Deserted, produced with Glitterbeat Records. It is the group’s first true album since 2011, and it gleams at the tail-end of The Mekons’ forty years of music. If Deserted has any single unifying image, it comes from the album’s art: a sparse landscape around a lone trailer, just as a group of elongated shadows come upon it. There could be eight, but in the wavering heat of the painted image, there might well be more. This desert-vision connects at least a few of the record’s nine songs: “Into the Sun,” “In the Desert,” “Mirage,” and “After the Rain.” Even “Lawrence of California” and “Harar 1883” evoke faraway places undergoing scorching suns and grinding winds.

But as desolate as the surface of the songs would suggest, the variety of their sound is as refreshing as an oasis. “Lawrence of California” throws in slashing electric guitars with swelling strings and demands, “Get out of the van, disappear!” The song bites with a tight beat, but its stomping pace doesn’t keep up in the other tracks. “After the Rain” adds a touch of the East with wavering sitars drifting over rustling and twangs, like heat over dried out underbrush. The desert images flash up in song here and there, but they’re fleeting. Most common is the strolling pace in songs like “Weimar Vending Machine” and “After the Rain,” where steady drums lead the way for calming chimes. The groups’ vocals change tones without warning, ranging from accusatory to musing to bewildered, but there is a sense of motion. Punk, followed by folk, rounded out by rock. Not quite forward, not quite backward, but motion all the same. The unpredictable way this album unwinds at its own pleasure defines its sound, and it will surely please the group’s followers. The Mekons continue to choose honestly for themselves in this varied, contracting, and expanding record.

“There’s some impressive variety”
“Come back later, come back”
“You should see us after the rain”
Rolling drumbeat (like strolling, hardly urgent), chimes
Slashing electric guitar, steady bass drum
“Where are you hiding?!” (complete with child calling/responding)

by Kevin LaTorre

We Are Scientists

Love Canon
Cover Story
Organic Records

Popular music is cyclical as some past sounds are revisited. In recent years, the 1980’s have infiltrated pop music airwaves, from electronic dance music to indie rock, hip-hop to R&B. Appalachian-honed virtuoso string musicians Love Canon – in business for nearly a decade – have made a name by purveying roots-based renditions of rock hits in the past decades (e.g. “Touch of Grey” by Grateful Dead, “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne, “Africa” by Toto) while adding a bluegrass flair from the Blue Ridge Mountains. Their latest effort Cover Story – with the album cover a nod to vintage Rolling Stone – features collaborations with Grammy winners.

Fronted by guitarist and vocalist Jesse Harper, the band offers acoustic reinterpretations from “a journey through music’s greatest decade,” which may mean the 1980s. Ironically, the album starts off with Billy Joel’s 1976 staple “Prelude/Angry Young Man” and features Peter Gabriel’s 1977 evergreen “Solsbury Hill” to Depeche Mode’s electronic opus “Enjoy the Silence,” from 1990. Nevertheless, Howard Johnson’s catchy “Things Can Only Get Better,” English band Squeeze’s “Tempted,” R.E.M.’s “Driver 8,” and Mr. Mister’s “Kyrie” are offset by Paul Simon’s “world music” classic “Graceland” and the country music duet of Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton’s “Islands in the Stream.” Guests such as guitarist Jerry Douglas (of Alison Krauss & Union Station), singer-songwriter Aoife O’Donovan, and “one-man jam band” Keller Williams nicely complement this band.

While cover bands come aplenty, Love Canon demonstrates skill in a jam-based setting, shedding new light to familiar tunes. Keeping the spirit of their home-based sounds alive, Love Canon connects rock music with bluegrass influences. Cover Story continues this journey, combining disparate rock flavors into a cohesive theme.

by Kevin La Torre

The Reputations
Electric Power
Nine Mile Records

Electric Power bristles with 1960’s vintage garage and 1970’s classic rock fare, accompanied with alternating female vocal reminiscent of the B-52’s Cindy Wilson, pop-rock icon Cyndi Lauper, and British soul-pop Duffy (as evidenced in the album opener “Tightrope” and the electric title track) and a male vocal that harks back to Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham (see: “Out of Style”) and Beatles-influenced Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne (“Tightrope” is not a cover of the ELO original). In fact, the tunes rotate between male-led and female-led vocals (such as on “Neighborhood” and “If the Spirit Don’t Move You,” respectively), taking cues from folk-rock titans The Mamas & the Papas (where their influence shines as a backdrop on “Shake Me Baby,” the lone ballad).

Producer Jody Stephens, of “power pop” legends Big Star, helps the band mine a Southern groove at the confluence of rock ‘n’ roll, soul, and AM pop. Harmonies from the pages of The Beach Boys and ABBA coalesce with a guitar-driven sound that balances effervescent pop with Rolling Stones-like energy. Prefaced by the aptly-titled single “The Exciter (“I keep knocking on the same door…breaking all the rules again”), The Reputations update the upbeat familiarity of The Me Generation to come up with original lyrics that widen the palette to attract nostalgic audiences as well as people unaware of such vintage rock sounds.

by Jeff Boyce