What I’ve Been Listening To: Rick Barth/Hand Me Down Soul

A mix of rock and acoustic-oriented roots music on Jersey singer-songwriter’s studio debut

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Rick Barth is another promising example that good music isn’t dead, just harder to find nowadays than say in the 60s and 70s where all you needed to do was to switch on the radio. FM radio definitely played an important role in the start of my music journey, along with my sister’s vinyl collection and my terrific guitar teacher. But back to Rick!

I met Rick last Sunday at Sarah Street Grill in Stroudsburg, Pa., while attending The Acoustic Singer-Songwriter Series. Organized by Rick, the event features a rotating lineup of New Jersey singer/songwriters and acoustic musicians. I was primarily there to see John Hathaway, a singer-songwriter from Asbury Park, N.J., who also fronts a great Neil Young tribute band called Decade. I’ve previously written about John, most recently here. John introduced me to Rick.

Rick Barth

In addition to organizing this great event, Rick is a Jersey singer-songwriter himself. In 2015, he released his studio debut Hand Me Down Soul. After having listened to the album a few times, I like what I’m hearing – a nice mix of rock and acoustic-oriented roots music, delivered with a slightly rugged voice. I can hear a little bit of Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp and Steve Earle here and there, who are all artists I dig. Interestingly, according to a previous review by Geoff Wilbur’s Music Blog, Rick started out his music career with hard rock and metal. He has certainly come a long way!

Hand Me Down With Soul kicks off with Wherever You Are, a nice mid-tempo rocker. Like all tracks except for one tune, the song was written by Rick, who also plays acoustic and electric guitars.

Another mid-tempo rock tune I like is Another Time With You.

The title track takes things slightly down a notch. In particular, I like Rick’s soulful vocal delivery of the tune.

I Love You (Now Go Away) is another standout to me. One of the country-oriented song’s defining features is the bluesy harmonica provided by Lou Tambone.

One of the all-acoustic songs on the record is Beautiful, an appropriate title. In addition to Rick’s vocals and acoustic guitar, the tune only features some organ by Jim Reeber in the background – really all that’s needed.

The last tune I’d like to call out is the album’s closer Invincible, another acoustic-oriented song. Rick co-wrote the lyrics with Darren Parker.

Hand Me Down was produced and engineered by Brian Csencsits at his studio Supreme Sound in Woodland Park, N.J. Apart from the above, other musicians on the record include Ralph Heiss (bass), Jeff Bridi (bass) and Mari Byrd (backing vocals on Good Old Days). Hand Me Down Soul is available on iTunes, Amazon.com and via Rick’s website.

Rick told me he is currently working on his next record. He joked he wants it be acoustic-oriented but that the folks who work with him keep suggesting to add drums and other instruments. According to his website, the album will be called Fade.

Sources: Rick Barth official website, Geoff Wilbur’s Music Blog, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Johnny Hathaway/Deep Cuts And Bruises

New Jersey singer-songwriter’s debut album presents nice mix of melodic rock and acoustic songs

Oftentimes, I complain how terrible most of today’s music is and how true craftsmanship seems to be a matter of the past. Modern technology makes it possible that artists no longer need to know how to play an instrument; heck, they can even get away with mediocre vocals, since you can pretty much correct anything with computers. But what I really mean is the majority of music dominating today’s charts. However, as I’ve realized time and again, fortunately, there is more to the picture.

Good music is still out there, but since it is largely gone from the mainstream, it is harder to find. A great example is John (Johnny) Hathaway, a singer-songwriter from Asbury Park, N.J. I met John last September at Colts Neck Rockfest in Colts Neck, N.J., where he was performing with his excellent Neil Young tribute band Decade. I dig Young, so we started chatting about Neil and John’s band. I’ve since been to various other of their gigs. But it was only recently that I realized John is also writing his own music and released his debut album Deep Cuts And Bruises in April 2016.

John Hathaway

Recently, I went to a solo performance by John at The Acoustic Singer-Songwriter Series,  a live performance series by a rotating lineup of New Jersey singer/songwriters and acoustic musicians, organized by Rick Barth, another Jersey singer-songwriter. Rick is a great guy. His singer-songwriter series is a nice opportunity for up- and coming artists to perform their music in a nice, relaxed and relatively low pressure atmosphere. He also has an album out, which I’m planning to review separately.

John told me since he didn’t have a band at the time, he pretty much produced Deep Cuts And Bruises by himself at home with a 24-track machine. Except for drums and percussion, which were played by Ken Biedzynski, and lap steel guitar on one track by Mike Flynn, John played all of the instruments himself, including acoustic and electric guitars, bass, mandolin and harmonica. There are also various guest vocalists. Given that only the mastering was done at a professional studio, the sound is great; frankly, if you didn’t know, you’d never guess you’re essentially listening to a home-produced record. Time to get to some music!

Here is the album’s opener Release Me, a nice rocker with a catchy chorus.

Another rock-oriented song and one of my favorite tunes on the album is Ride Along. I really like the guitar sound on this track, which also has a strong chorus.

Two Days From Tucson is one of the acoustic tracks on the record. It has a nice, relaxed, rootsy and country vibe to it. Backing vocals are provided by Pam McCoy.

Another acoustic standout is Real Men. The singing is beautiful, featuring alternating lead vocals between John and Linda King, who also provides backing vocals. Flynn sets nice pedal steel guitar accents.

From Deep Within is a mid-tempo melodic rock-oriented tune. In particular, I like the harmony guitar parts that are reminiscent of Boston – and it’s safe to assume all of it done without the sound technology of wizard Tom Scholz!

The last tune I’d like to highlight is the title track, another gem on the record. This song has great dynamic, with a grungy main section nicely framed by a low start and end with mandolin.

Other guest vocalists on Deep Cuts And Bruises include Lisa Barone, Wendy Horn, Laura Catalina Johnson and Sandra Huth. The album was mastered by Dave Florio at Sound Cave Studios in Sayreville, N.J. The record is available on Spotify.

While John hasn’t started work on another album, he told me he has about 60 songs, which sounds like a good quantity to me. I’m pretty sure we’ll hear more recorded music from him at some point.

Sources: John Hathaway Facebook page, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Jackson Browne/Running On Empty

Jackson Browne has been one of my favorite artists for many years. When I recently learned he is touring, I simply couldn’t resist and got a ticket for a show on May 13 in Bethlehem, Pa. I was lucky, since the concert was almost sold out, though the ticket wasn’t exactly cheap. Still, I’m completely psyched!

Running On Empty was the first song by Browne I ever heard in the late ’70s/early ’80s. The title track of his fifth album from December 1977 immediately grabbed me and still does. The entire record is amazing and is one of the best ’70s albums, in my opinion.

Apparently, the above clip was captured during a gig in Adelaide, Australia in March this year. It shows Browne’s current touring band, which consists of Bob Glaub (bass), Mauricio Lewak (drums), Shane Fontayne (guitar), Alethea Mills (vocals), Chavonne Stewart (vocals), Jeff Young (keyboards) and multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz (guitar, lap steel, pedal steel). While it is perhaps impossible to replace the amazing David Lindley, who played lap steel guitar on the original recording, it surely sounds like Leisz is doing a great job.

Browne’s current tour schedule shows some 40 dates across the country between early May and early August.

Sources: Wikipedia, Jackson Browne official website, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Brandi Carlile/The Joke

Boy am I out of touch when it comes to music by contemporary artists! I just listened to an episode of the NPR program All Songs Considered called “The Year In Music 2017.” For close to 1.5 hours, the hosts cheerfully discussed new music released during 2017 by artists I had never heard of for the most part. Most of the music wasn’t my cup of tea, but the track above by Brandi Carlile really blew me away. It once again illustrates you ignore contemporary artists at your own risk!

According to Wikipedia, Carlile is an American folk rock and Americana singer-songwriter, who released her eponymous debut album in 2005. In the meantime, she’s put out four additional records and has a new one scheduled for February 2018, which is called By The Way, I Forgive You. The above track The Joke is from the new album and was released as a single last month. This incredibly powerful tune encourages me to further explore this artist.

Sources: Wikipedia, Brandi Carlile website, YouTube

 

Sheryl Crow’s New Album Is a Nice Return to Her 90s Pop Rock Roots

After a winding road via Memphis soul and country music, Sheryl Crow returns to her pop rock origins of her early records in the 90s.

The title of Sheryl Crow’s new album, Be Myself, is a statement that you shouldn’t try to be somebody else than you really are. It also nicely fits the singer-songwriter’s conclusion that seeking success in the world of country came with unexpected roadblocks and requirements, which ultimately made the genre the wrong fit for her.

While Crow said she enjoyed the songwriting for her 2013 country album, which ironically was titled Feels Like Home, there were other things she didn’t like. “What I didn’t expect is that [country radio programmers] really don’t play women unless it’s Carrie [Underwood] and Miranda [Lambert], ” Crow told the Los Angeles Times. “The other thing I didn’t expect is how much you have to make yourself available to record promoters and radio programmers,” a tough proposition for Crow who is raising two young school-age children by herself.

Released last Fri (Apr. 21), Be Myself is Crow’s 10th studio album. Not only did she decide to return to her pop rock-oriented style of the 90s, she also collaborated with two people who played an important role during that period: Songwriter Jeff Trott and audio engineer Tchad Blake, who had been involved in Crow’s 1996 eponymous studio album and the 1998 follow-on, The Globe Sessions. Both albums sold well and won Gammy awards. Trott, who also co-produced the new record together with Crow, co-wrote many of her hits over the years, such as Everyday is a Winding Road, My Favorite Mistake, Soak Up the Sun and If It Makes You Happy, which is perhaps my favorite Crow song.

Cheryl Crow

Fans of Crow’s early work won’t be disappointed with the new album. The opener Alone in the Dark pretty much reflects the style of the record: mid-tempo, guitar-oriented pop rock with catchy melodies. Halfway There, which was released as the first single in early March, has a nice grove with effective touches of funky guitar and horns. Other standouts are the title song with a nice rock guitar solo, and Roller Skate, which has a cool guitar riff. Another aspect I like about the album is the music craftsmanship. At 55 years old, Crow comes from a generation of musicians who believes music should be played on real instruments rather than generated in the computer.

Initial reactions to the album have been positive. Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield called it “excellent” and her “toughest, best in a decade.” Writing for AllMusic, Steven Thomas Erlewine characterized the album as “strong, sophisticated pop.” Blurt’s Tiffini Taylor concluded, “Sheryl Crow is presenting a great musical journey with Be Myself. It’s a journey that everyone should get on board with, one that will be listened to for a very long time.”

I’m less optimistic than Taylor about the album’s longevity, given it sounds very different from most of the mediocre stuff dominating the charts nowadays. But Crow, who has proven has herself and – it’s safe to assume – also made good money in the process, seems to be at ease. “There is something really fantastic about being my age,” she said in an interview with USA Today.  “I don’t worry about repeating myself or wanting to be a better producer, a better songwriter, a better this or that. On this record, I was like, screw that. Let’s just close the door and not worry about who hears this.”

Here’s a nice clip of a live performance of Alone in the Dark, which apparently was captured just a few days ago from a show in New York City’s Bowery Ballroom.

Sources: Wikipedia, Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, AllMusic, Blurt, USA Today, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Curtis Mayfield/Curtis

Curtis Mayfield’s first solo album was a departure from most of 60s pop-oriented soul with more edgy sounds and lyrics, a direction that would also be embraced by other black artists like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.

By the time Curtis Mayfield released his first solo album Curtis in Sep 1970, he already had established himself as a successful music artist for more than 10 years, especially as leader of the pop soul and R&B band The Impressions.  But while songs like People Get Ready and Keep on Pushing had started to introduce lyrics with a social message, Mayfield felt what was generally expected of The Impressions did not sufficiently allow him to express himself, both musically and lyrically.

Curtis Side A

Right from the get-go with (Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re Going to Go, Mayfield makes it crystal clear he has left behind the days of For Your Precious Love, Gypsy Woman and It’s All Right. For the record, I think all three songs are beautifully executed doo-wop soul. The point is they are very different from the music on Curtis. Perhaps an excerpt from Don’t Worry illustrates it best:

Everybody smoke/Use the pill and the dope/Educated fools/From uneducated schools/Pimping people is the rule/Polluted water in the pool/And Nixon talking ’bout, “Don’t worry”/He say, “Don’t worry”/He say, “Don’t worry”/He say, “Don’t worry”/But they don’t know/There can be no show/And if there’s hell below/We’re all gonna go.

This is pretty heavy stuff. It’s also rather eerie how relevant these lyrics remain in present-day America, more than 45 years after they were written! Like much of the other music on the album, the song doesn’t have a catchy hook line but instead is fueled by a grove dominated by congas, funky guitars, jazz and orchestral parts.

Curtis Side B

The standout on the album, both musically and lyrically, is Move On Up, which remains one of the greatest funk-soul songs to this day. The fantastic horn intro and the conga-driven beat, along with Mayfield’s mesmerizing silky falsetto, is simply irresistible. Unlike the dark lyrics of the album’s other songs, Mayfield conveys a more upbeat message, saying there is hope after all for people if they work hard and persist. Again, an excerpt illustrates it best:

Take nothing less, than the second best/Do not obey, you must keep your say/You can pass the test/Just move on up, to a greater day/With just a little faith/If you put your mind to it you can surely do it.

While Curtis performed well upon its release, hitting no. 1 on the Billboard Black Albums and no. 19 on the Billboard Pop Albums charts, it got mixed reviews from music critics some of whom simply didn’t get what Mayfield was doing. Wendell John wrote in Rolling Stone, “Lyrically, his songs are a lot more rhyme than reason…The arrangements are all pretty uninspired, a little bit halfhearted – maybe largely because there’s so little melodic meat to most of the tunes.”

The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau at first wasn’t particularly impressed either but later reassessed his views: “Initially I distrusted these putatively middlebrow guides to black pride–“Miss Black America” indeed. But a lot of black people found them estimable, so I listened some more, and I’m glad…What did surprise me was that the whole project seemed less and less middlebrow as I got to know it.” Oh, well…

Bruce Eder from AllMusic said Curtis “was practically the “Sgt. Pepper’s” album of 70s soul, helping with its content and success to open the whole genre to much bigger, richer musical canvases than artists had previously worked with.”

Finally, let the music speak. Here’s a clip of Mayfield performing Move On Up live.  While playing the horn parts on keyboards isn’t as good as the real instruments, even without the horns, the song and Mayfield’s voice shine. And, by the way, what a killer band!

Sources: Wikipedia, AllMusic, Rolling Stone, Robert Christgau Consumer Guide Reviews, YouTube

John Mayer Is Back With Reflective New Album

After three and a half years, singer-songwriter John Mayer has released a new full-length album, reflecting on love, life and getting older.

After two EPs each consisting of four songs from his new album, John Mayer has released the entire record. The Search for Everything is the seventh full-length studio album of the singer-songwriter, guitarist and producer, and his most personal and reflective work to date.

Mayer clearly put a lot of ambition in the album, reportedly spending hundreds of hours in the studio. “This is the longest I have gone in the incubation of a record,” he told Rolling Stone. “I wasn’t interested in doing anything I’ve done before, and I wanted to stoke the fire of abstraction and just start punching hard.”

John Mayer

The 12-track set kicks off with Still Feel Like Your Man, a soulful ballad with a soft, laid-back, funky guitar feel. Other tunes with a similar groove include Helpless and Moving On and Getting Over. Helpless also nicely showcases Mayer’s great abilities on electric solo guitar, as does Changing.

Love on the Weekend, the first single released last Nov, is perhaps the album’s most catchy tune. While in this regard it doesn’t quite reach previous songs, such as Daughters, Waiting on the World to Change or Say, it proves Mayer still knows how to write hit songs. Love on the Weekend charted within the Billboard Hot 100 at no. 53 and climbed to no. 5 on the Hot Rock Songs chart.

On two of the songs Mayer has some great help on background vocals. The above mentioned Helpless features Tiffany Palmer, who according to her bio has also worked with artists like Bette Midler, Chaka Khan and Mary J. Blige. In addition, she has written for Anita Baker and Patti LaBelle. And then there is none other than Cheryl Crow, who provides background vocals on In the Blood.

john_mayer 2

Overall, The Search for Everything is a pretty solid album. Mayer’s guitar-playing is superb. A review in Entertainment Weekly noted it’s reminiscent of “the most reeled-in work of Eric Clapton’s solo career.” Perhaps one drawback is that all of the songs are slow or mid-tempo, which does make listening to the album a bit monotonous after a while. Throwing in a couple of uptempo tunes here and there could have mixed things up, even covers of blues rockers, which is a genre in which Mayer absolutely excels. On the other hand, I get this would have thrown off the album’s overall focus on personal reflection.

Further commenting on the album, Mayer told USA Today it’s about “getting older and comparing my track to other people’s. Part of me is a quote-unquote ‘rock star’ and part of me is this kid from Fairfield, Conn., who really wasn’t made for this. That part looks around at the other parts and goes, ‘Is any of this OK? Am I alright doing this?'”

All tracks on The Search for Everything were written by Mayer. He also produced the album, together with Chad Franscoviac and Steve Jordan (executive producer), with whom he has frequently worked in the past. Mayer is currently on the road to support the record with an extensive tour that mostly focuses on the U.S., with a few gigs in Canada and one show in London, UK.  The tour is scheduled to conclude in Noblesville, Ind. on Sep 2.

Here’s a clip of Helpless from a recent live performance in Albany, N.Y.

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Billboard, USA Today, Tiffany Palmer web site, YouTube