Random record reviews: Norah Jones, Post Malone, Booker T.

(Above: “Die For You” is a stand-out track on Post Malone’s third album. Hollywood’s Bleeding takes a moment to get going, but is fun once it does.)

By Joel Francis

Norah Jones – Pick Me Up Off the Floor

Although Norah Jones’ second album in as many years shares many similarities with last year’s Begin Again, Pick Me Up Off the Floor hangs together better as a cohesive album.

Working once again with a revolving cast of musicians, Jones maintains a consistent mood and tempo throughout the album. The joy in these performances lie in their subtleties, like the pedal steel guitar on “Heartbroken, Day After,” soulful B3 organ on “Flame Twin” or horns on the gospel song “To Live.” It’s not hard to get lost in the interplay between drummer Brian Blade and upright bass player Chris Thomas on “Hurts to Be Alone.”

Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy’s idiosyncratic guitar playing and unique phrasing are evident throughout “I’m Alive,” one of the best songs on the album. Ultimately, however, these nuances aren’t distinct enough to win Jones any new fans. The mid-tempo pop/jazz singer may need to be picked up off the floor, but only the most devoted fans will be swept off their feet.

Post Malone – Hollywood’s Bleeding

For an established pop artist, Post Malone’s third album takes a while before the hooks arrive. There are a few flourishes of energy – DaBaby’s rap on “Enemies,” the bridge on “Allergic” – before “A Thousand Bad Times,” the fifth song, finally delivers something to sing along to.

From there, Hollywood’s Bleeding starts building momentum. “Circles” is perfect for a night at the club (whenever that can be a thing again), while Future and Halsey steal the spotlight on “Die for Me.” Ozzy Osborne and Travis Scott take over on the arena rock anthem “Take What You Want.” In danger of disappearing on his own album, Malone grabs center stage on “I’m Gonna Be” and “Staring at the Sun” (with SZA). This sets up the massive hit “Sunflower,” which appeared in the animated Spider-Man film.

At 17 tracks and 51 minutes, Hollywood’s Bleeding could benefit from some editing, but the genre mashup, something-for-everyone approach winds up delivering plenty of fun.

Booker T. Jones – Note by Note

As leader of Booker T. and the MGs, Booker T. Jones helped define the sound of the Stax label and southern soul. Trust me, you’ve heard him play even if you don’t recognize the name. Now Jones is back with his first album since 2013 revisiting the songs and music that built his reputation.

Note by Note jumps out of the speakers with “Cause I Love You,” a duet between Evvie McKinney and Joshua Ledet. From there, Jones takes the mic for the swampy blues “Born Under a Bad Sign” before turning the singing over to Ayanna Irish on the playful “B-A-B-Y.”

Regardless of the style or the singer, Jones’ distinctive B3 organ holds the performances together. His talent is especially evident on seemingly disparate performances of the gospel number “Precious Lord” and Chuck Berry’s “Havana Moon” (delivered with a distinct south-of-the-border feel).

Two new songs close out the album, but by then the deal has long been sealed. Fans of the Colemine and Daptone labels will find a lot to love here, but any fan of sweet soul music should celebrate Note by Note.

Keep reading:

Review – Booker T.

Another Side of Norah Jones

“Stax Does the Beatles”

Social Distancing Spins, Day 1

By Joel Francis

The coronavirus pandemic has taken a lot of things away, but one thing it has provided me in abundance is plenty of extra time at home. I decided to make the most of my social distancing by doing a deep dive through my album collection. As the turntable spun, I was inspired to write about what I heard.

My intent is to provide brief snippets about each day’s albums. I understand that many of these classic recordings deserve lengthy posts on their own, but since we will be covering a lot of ground here I will try to remain brisk and on point. Ready? Let’s get to it.

Black Sabbath – Heaven and Hell (1980) Sabbath’s first half-dozen albums are rightly canonical. Heaven and Hell isn’t as groundbreaking but every bit as enjoyable as those classic platters. Sadly, the Ronnie James Dio era of Sabbath is mostly remembered by headbangers these days. This is the only Sabbath album I own, but I look forward to someday adding Mob Rules to the collection.

Hot Water Music – Light It Up (2017) – Playing the most recent album from the veteran Florida rock band was intended to wet my whistle for their concert at the RecordBar, scheduled just a few days away. Alas, like everything else on the horizon it was moved forward on the calendar until a hopefully calmer time. With a name swiped from Charles Bukowski and a sound like gasoline arguing with barbed wire the show is guaranteed to be a winner whenever it is held.

The Hold Steady – Heaven is Whenever (2010) This was my least-favorite Hold Steady album when it was released and I confess I haven’t played it as much as the albums that preceded and followed it. I thought the departure of multi-instrumentalist Franz Nicolay left too much of a hole in their sound, though the band sounded great when I saw them on this tour. Playing it now, I don’t think I gave Heaven is Whenever is enough credit at the time. It’s not a masterpiece on the scale of Boys and Girls in America and not as fierce as Teeth Dreams but there are some freaking fine moments, including “Our Whole Lives,” buried at the end of side two.

Bruce Springsteen – Born in the U.S.A. (1984) What can be said about this landmark that hasn’t been said before? To be fair, this album was a request from my five-year-old son who loves “Dancing in the Dark” thanks to E Street Radio. “Dancing” is the next-to-last track, meaning he exposed to 10 other great tunes while waiting for his favorite number. Hopefully a few more of them will stick, although I’m not sure I want him singing “I’m on Fire” quite yet.

The Yawpers – American Man (2015) This Denver-based trio fits in well on Bloodshot’s roster of alt-country acts. Songwriter Nate Cook’s early 21st-centry examination of the U.S. of A. plays like a road trip. On songs like “9 to 5,” “Kiss It” and “Walter” they sound like Uncle Tupelo being chased through the Overlook Hotel by Jack Torrance.

The Highwomen – self-titled (2019) I toured the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville a few years ago. I was fascinated by the museum until the timeline reached the late 1980s. After Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle came on the scene, mainstream country and I quickly parted ways. The four songwriters in Highwomen are trying to reclaim popular country music on their own terms. Many, many great artists have tried to bend Music City to their tastes only to retreat exhausted. The best of them found Music Row sucking up to their pioneering sound only after it became popular. My guess is that the Highwomen will follow this same route, but they are so good you can’t rule out they will be the ones to finally break the stale, chauvinistic stockade.

(I say this and then notice that I’ve namedropped two male country stars in this piece without mentioning any of the female members of the Highwomen. Sigh. Please forgive me, Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Natalie Hemby and Maren Morris.)

Jamila Woods – Legacy! Legacy! (2019) The Ivy League-educated neo-soul songstress focuses on the small to show us the large on her second album. Each of the thirteen tracks focus on an important black artists – Nikki Giovanni, Eartha Kitt, Jean-Michel Basquiat – explore what it means to be black in America today. What sounds like an academic thesis is actually a good dance album, thanks to a soundscape that slides between jazz, soul, hip hop, Afro-beat and even touches of EDM.

Jeff Tweedy – Together at Last (2017) Thanks to the film “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” Jeff Tweedy’s bands Uncle Tupelo and Wilco barely made it into the mainstream before the monoculture collapsed and the entertainment world splintered into a million micro-genres and sects. The eleven songs performed here are stripped of all wonky production and distilled to voice and guitar. They are still amazing.

Joni Mitchell – Ladies of the Canyon (1970) Joni Mitchell’s work in the 1970s is every bit as good as Neil Young’s and even better than Bob Dylan’s. This album finds Mitchell branching out by adding more instruments to the guitar-and-voice arrangements found on her first two albums. The jazz clarinet solo at the end of “For Free” gets me every time. Three of Mitchell’s biggest songs are tucked at the end of side two. “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Woodstock” set up “The Circle Game,” a look at mortality than never fails to leave me feeling deeply blue.

Ian Hunter – You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic (1979) Ringo’s All-Starr Band isn’t the place for deep cuts, so I knew when Ian Hunter was listed as the guitar player for the 2001 tour I held a ticket for, I knew I was going to hear “Cleveland Rocks.” The only problem was the show was in St. Louis, so it didn’t really work. That’s Hunter’s catalog in a nutshell for me. All the right ingredients are there on paper and I get excited about hearing the albums when I read the reviews, but they never fully click with me. His releases are so plentiful in the used bins and priced so cheaply I keep giving them a shot hoping the next one will be The One.

Bear Hands – Fake Tunes (2019) Another play anticipating a performance that was cancelled. They descending keyboard part on “Blue Lips” reminds me of a good appropriation of Vampire Weekend’s first album (that’s a compliment). The overall vibe sends me to the same place as Beck’s “Guero” and “The Information” albums.

Thom Yorke – Susperia (2018) I’m not sure we needed a remake of Susperia, the 1977 Italian horror classic, but I’m glad it gave us Thom Yorke’s moody score. Trading his laptop for a piano, the Radiohead frontman provides 80 minutes of spare, melancholy instrumentals. The few vocal tracks make you wish there were more.

Yorke performed in Kansas City, Mo., less than two months after Susperia’s release, but ignored his latest album until the final song of the night. His performance of Unmade alone at the keyboard was the perfect benediction for a skittery night of electronic music.

Jack White and the Bricks – Live on the Garden Bowl Lanes: 1999 (2013)

The Go – Whatcha Doin’ (1999) These albums both arrived courtesy of the Third Man Records Vault and were recorded around the same time. Jack White was always a man of a million projects. When Meg was unavailable for a White Stripes show he grabbed some buddies – including future Raconteur Brendan Benson and Dirtbombs drummer Ben Blackwell – for a set including a couple songs that would become Stripes staples, a pair of Bob Dylan covers and a song by ? and the Mysterians (not 96 Tears). The sound is a little rough but the performance is solid.

The debut album from The Go, Whatcha Doin’ is hefty slab of garage rock guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Jack White plays guitar and co-writes a couple songs, but this isn’t his show. He left the band shortly after the album came out, but there was no animosity. In 2003, The Go opened several shows for the White Stripes in the United Kingdom.

Syl Johnson – We Do It Together (compilation) This is the sixth platter in the amazing Complete Mythology box set released by the Numero Group in 2010.The material starts in 1970 and ends in 1977, omitting the time Johnson spent with Hi Records. Never lacking in self-confidence, Johnson frequently claimed he was every bit as good as James Brown and Al Green. Although he doesn’t have their notoriety, Johnson’s albums could easily slip into a DJ set of those soul masters.

Review: Ozzy + Slash

(Above: Ozzy performs “Mr. Crowley” at the Sprint Center on Jan. 22, 2010.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The Prince of Darkness looked more like a soaked kitten.

Ozzy Osbourne stood center stage dripping wet, covered in foam. Thanks to the fire hose he used to liberally douse both himself and fans in the front half of the floor, Ozzy looked like he’d just fallen into a bathtub. The foam would dissolve, but Ozzy would never dry out.

Ostensibly in town to promote a new album, Ozzy performed just one new song.  Most of the rest of the setlist could have been written months in advance by a causal fan. But while the songs didn’t hold any surprises, many of the performances were still vital.

Experiencing Ozzy perform “Crazy Train” is a classic rock ‘n’ roll moment up there with hearing the Stones do “Jumping Jack Flash” or seeing Pearl Jam perform “Alive.” Despite being more than 40 years old, “War Pigs” still packs a powerful punch.

Although some of his solo material hasn’t aged as well, the three-quarters full house still reveled in the night, pumping their fists during solos and singing along. During “The Road to Nowhere” and “Mama, I’m Coming Home” the room lit up with lighters.

“Mr. Crowley” was an early highlight. Keyboard player Adam Wakeman, son of Rick Wakeman, turned the room into a giant cathedral with his ominous organ. As he played, a sheet of sparks feel from the rafters behind Ozzy, creating a curtain of fireworks.

Although there was a large video screen behind the band for most of the set and plenty of pyrotechnics, Ozzy’s oversized persona was the best visual effect of the night. Waterworks aside, he was constantly in motion, urging the crowd to clap, hopping up and down like a frog or bowing to his audience. During “Fire in the Sky” he writhed his arms and body during the lengthy guitar solo as if performing some Satanic jujitsu.

The two-hour set lagged quite a bit toward the end. It would have been difficult to maintain the energy and momentum of the opening numbers, but back-to-back, cliché-ridden guitar and drum solos deflated the show. Everyone would have been better served had the band performed two 45-minute sets with an intermission.

Fortunately Ozzy still had plenty of goodies buried in his catalog. “Crazy Train” brought the crowd back to life, while “Mama” and “Paranoid” ensured most of them would show up next time for his inevitable return.

Slash: Axl Rose is notorious for making fans wait hours before appearing; Slash came onstage 10 minutes early. His one-hour set was basically a truncated version of the show he put on last fall at the Voodoo Lounge. It was heavy on Guns ‘N’ Roses, with most of the songs coming from “Appetite For Destruction.” The Velvet Revolver material held its own, but some of the newer songs lost the crowd, especially “By the Sword.”

For a band so reliant on its guitarist, the mix was atrocious. All the instruments were trapped in a mush under bellowing drums and vocals that sounded like they emanated from a tin-can telephone. Fans may have been better served sonically by asking their next-door neighbor to play “Appetite” at full volume, then retreating to their basement and listening to it from there. Although the sound got better at times, the closing solo during “Paradise City” was practically inaudible.

Ozzy setlist: Bark at the Moon; Let Me Hear You Scream; Mr. Crowley; I Don’t Know; Fairies Wear Boots; Suicide Solution; Road to Nowhere; War Pigs; Fire in the Sky; Shot in the Dark; guitar solo > Rat Salad > drum solo; Iron Man; I Don’t Want to Change the World; Crazy Train. Encore: Mama, I’m Coming Home; Paranoid.

Slash setlist: Ghost; Sucker Train Blues; Mr. Brownstone; Back From Cali; Civil War; Nothing to Say; By the Sword; Nightrain; Sweet Child O’ Mine; Slither; Paradise City.

Keep reading:

Review: Slash

Review: “I Am Ozzy”

Review: Megadeth

 

 

 

Review: Slash

(Above: Slash + Myles Kennedy and co. perform “Civil War,” arguably Guns N Roses’ finest moment.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Slash will always be known as the top-hatted guitarist for Guns N’ Roses, but he’s built quite a body of work in the 15 years since leaving that band. Thursday night at Harrah’s Voodoo Lounge, Slash drew on all phases of his career – Snakepit, Velvet Revolver, his new solo album and, of course, Guns N’ Roses – during his two hour performance.

The early numbers were a quick survey of Slash’s career. “Ghost,” a number from his new self-titled effort opened the proceedings with a slinky, sleazy guitar riff. It was followed by the rough stomp of “Mean Bone” from Slash’s Snakepit days, the “Appetite for Destruction” classic “Nightrain” and Velvet Revolver’s “Sucker Train Blues.”

After a strong opening, the set got even better. “Back to Cali,” another new track, opened with vocalist Myles Kennedy of Alter Bridge and Slash standing shoulder-to-shoulder during a heated call and response that brought to mind Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. Both “Cali” and “Do It for the Kids” rocked harder than anything Slash’s former band came up with for “Chinese Democracy.” “Civil War” and “Rocket Queen,” two of the brightest moments from Slash’s Guns glory days, came next.

Guitarist Zakk Wylde once said playing with Ozzy Osbourne was like being in a glorified cover band, because the performances encompassed material from different eras and songwriters. The same could also be said by Slash’s four new band mates, but they didn’t seem to mind helping Slash recreate his finest moments any more than Wylde did with Ozzy.

Kennedy easily conjured the ghost of Axl Rose, replicating his vocal tics right down to the radio commentary at the end of “Civil War.” He had no problem nailing the high parts on “Rocket Queen,” either. Together, Kennedy and bass player Todd Kerns – who delighted romping around the stage and lip synching to all the Guns N’ Roses songs – came close to capturing the spirit of Velvet Revolver singer Scott Weiland’s tone.

Although the singer is generally regarded as the front man, this was purely Slash’s show. Kennedy dutifully moved himself and the mic stand back by the drums during each solo so Slash could have center stage. Although primarily stationed at stage left, the crowd followed Slash’s movements across the stage like plants chasing sunlight. Kennedy’s one moment in the spotlight came late in the set when Slash relinquished lead guitar duties during a cover of Alter Bridge’s “Rise Today.”

If the first half of the concert was a showcase for great songs Slash helped write, the second half was dedicated to showing off his guitar skills. Slash is the king of the oily riff that goes down smooth and leaves you feeling dirty. Those skills, however, tend to perish without the structure of a song.

Exhibit A was a tedious five-minute blues jam that culminated in the theme from “The Godfather,” another several-minute exercise. After noodling around for nearly 20 minutes – the blues jam was preceded by the instrumental “Watch This” – Slash ended his solos in the best way possible by dropping into the signature riff to “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”

Kennedy held the mic stand over the re-ignited crowd and let them lead the chorus, a trick he would perform again a few minutes later during “Paradise City.” The closing song, it encapsulated all the best elements of the night: energetic crowd participation, big riffs, great songwriting and killer solos. The night ended with some of Slash’s best solos as the ensemble stretched out over the melody.

For $30 fans could take home a recording of the concert. A line was already forming at the table in the back as the band took their final bows. The CDs are a nice souvenir for dedicated fans, but it’s hard to imagine any casual “best of Slash” playlist deviating too much from what he delivered onstage.

Setlist: Ghost; Mean Bone; Nightrain; Sucker Train Blues; Back from Cali; Do It For the Kids; Civil War; Rocket Queen; Fall to Pieces; Just Like Anything; Nothing to Say; Starlight; Watch This; blues jam > Theme from “The Godfather” > Sweet Child O’ Mine; Rise Today (Alter Bridge cover); Slither. Encore: By the Sword; Communication Breakdown (Led Zeppelin cover); Paradise City.

Keep reading:

Review: “I Am Ozzy”

Review: Motley Crue

Review: Alice in Chains

Review: “I Am Ozzy”

(Above: Ozzy Osbourne has done a lot of crazy stuff in his life. This might be the most surreal.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The trails and adventures of Ozzy Osbourne’s life have been repackaged and sold nearly as often as the metal god’s greatest hits.

Between an episode of “Behind the Music,” countless articles and three seasons of reality television on MTV, there’s little new ground for Ozzy’s new autobiography, “I Am Ozzy” to cover.

But just like “Crazy Train” and “No More Tears,” just because you’ve heard them before doesn’t mean you don’t want to hear them again. “I Am Ozzy” may hold few surprises, but it’s still a breezy and entertaining read.

Fans looking for insight into Ozzy’s musical process should look elsewhere. Animal activists are also advised to keep away. In the course of the book’s 391 pages, Ozzy not only (infamously) bites the head off of a dove and a bat, but decapitates his seven-foot stuffed bear and mows down his backyard flock of pet chickens during a drunken rampage.

That phrase, “during a drunken rampage,” is the preface to 99 percent of the book’s stories. It is amazing that Ozzy survived his rampages. Even more incredibly, the cumulative effect of so many successive episodes makes Ozzy’s unthinkable actions seem rational. After reading “I was drunk, so I figured ___” so many times, one starts to become numb to the consequences and may find himself frequently nodding in agreement.

The most entertaining and musically focused chapters detail Ozzy’s time in Black Sabbath. Before recording “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” the band holed up at Clearwell Castle in England. The time supposed to be used for rehearsal quickly devolved into a series of pranks designed to convince the others the castle was haunted. These stories show an innocent playfulness than reinforces the bond between band mates and makes them feel more human.

“I Am Ozzy” could also serve as an alternate screenplay for “This Is Spinal Tap.” Ozzy details his difficulties finding the perfect midget to hang onstage and how he placed blood capsules in a wig so it looks like he is suffering head trauma. He also recalls the difficulties of performing in a suit of armor – particularly when fans are flinging handfuls of raw meat onto the stage – and the night the pyrotechnic hand designed to lift him over the crowd malfunctioned.

Despite the hi-jinks, there is a serious side to the book. Ozzy somberly discusses the death of his guitarist and greatest foil, Randy Rhoades, a lawsuit filed by the family of a fan after he committed suicide and dealings with religious fanatics, both Satanists and Christians. Ozzy expresses his regrets, but doesn’t expound on the details (probably because he never had to deal with them).

For the past three decades, Ozzy’s long-suffering wife and manager Sharon has embraced the role of janitor. The Marge to Homer’s Ozzy, Sharon not only had to deal with the consequences of her husband’s addictions, but also had to repeatedly stand up to her father, Don Arden. As Ozzy and Sabbath’s former manager, he uses every dirty trick in the book to steal Ozzy back from his daughter. Sharon is frequently painted as an opportunist, but “I Am Ozzy” leaves little doubt that Sharon had to work very hard for her empire and may even deserve a smidgen of sympathy.

After spending two-thirds of his text on Sabbath and Rhodes, Ozzy breezes through the final 25 years of his life. Guitarists Jake E. Lee and Zakk Wylde (who played with Ozzy for 20 years) get only a passing mention. Ozzy slows down over the last 50 pages to discuss his resurrection on MTV, and health issues.

“I Am Ozzy” may not win any literary awards, but a special prize should be awarded to Chris Ayres for making the Ozz-man sound coherent and engaging. Although the conversational tone is loaded with profanity and British colloquialisms, they make the stories seem even more natural and personal.

If there’s one surprise in “I Am Ozzy” it is how much of Ozzy’s life feels like destiny. Despite the trappings of his fame and success, one gets the feeling Ozzy would have turned out pretty much same. Ozzy the Crazy Ex-Con or Ozzy the Slaughterhouse Worker (both were pre-fame occupations) just seem like lower-budget versions of Ozzy the Metal God.

After all, that’s who he is.