Monday, June 30, 2008

Darius Rucker - Learn To Live (2008)

On his second solo effort, the very compelling baritone of Darius Rucker is front and center on this pleasant CD of contemporary country music. That is how it should be because Rucker's voice is the reason to listen to Learn To Live.

The twelve songs are loaded with fiddles, banjos, and steel guitars, but they're buried deep enough in the mix to allow the electric guitars and drums to have their say. The latter gives the proceedings a rock 'n roll feel that downplays the country aspects of the music. At times Learn To Live doesn't sound like a country record and I'm sure that was a deliberate decision made in order not to alienate the singer's original fan base.

Rucker co-wrote all of the songs and they're good enough for repeated listens even if they're not classics. In fact, the tunes don't have to be great because his voice, one of the most pleasing in rock, carries the disc from beginning to end. Whether it's a ballad, up-tempo country, or straight ahead pop-rock, the former frontman for Hootie and The Blowfish is up to the task.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Chicago - Stone Of Sisyphus (XXXII) (2008)

It finally happened. The cross-generational band Chicago have finally issued their previously unreleased Stone Of Sisyphus (SOS) sessions from 1993. It's an honor that belongs to Rhino Records.

My view of these songs is very much the same as it was when I first heard them four years ago. The music is far better than anything Chicago released during their Warner Brothers years with the possible exception of 1982's Chicago 16. However, SOS does not rank with their classic albums from the seventies. So, why am I writing about SOS again? The answer is mostly to point out the differences between the unofficial version many fans have owned for years and the new Rhino disc hitting the shelves this week.

Most importantly, and shamefully, one of the songs originally slated for release on the CD back in 1993 has been eliminated. "Get On This," composed mostly by former band member Dawayne Bailey, was dumped. Is it because the song is arguably the most lyrically controversial and loudest track the band ever recorded? Is it because the song doesn’t fit in with Chicago’s dual images as a power ballad fiasco and a feel good oldies act, or is it because it’s composer was let go from Chicago through a bitter divorce as Bailey and a host of others suggest? If for no other reason the track should be included on the album because it was part of their original artistic vision when they recorded it back in 1993.

The other big change is Rhino’s re-sequencing of the first three tracks. This allows the title song to jump start the disc and that is a very good thing because it’s one of the album’s highlights. It should be noted that "Stone of Sisyphus" is also primarily a Bailey track and it’s far more accessible and mainstream than "Get On This." Jim Pankow’s very cool horn break late in the song is bolstered by the fine lead vocals of Robert Lamm on the verses and Bailey on the chorus.

There are also four demos included as bonus tracks. Rhino’s earlier re-issues of Chicago’s classic Columbia catalog prove that in their case the bonus tracks are almost always unnecessary.

The CD also has brand new art work with extensive liner notes. Both covers have their merits but are starkly different. The new official version is a glossy, high tech, modern day painting. The unreleased original is a sketch that Bailey had a hand in designing.

Will anyone who is not a devoted Chicago fan be interested in hearing, let alone purchasing, the new Stone Of Sisyphus? I don’t have an answer to that. I'm also not sure that I’m going to bother throwing down my hard earned cash to buy it because, in true Chicago style, their original artistic vision has been tampered with for motives that are not totally clear.

You can see my original SOS review with it's original cover art here.

Monday, June 09, 2008

The Hooters - Time Stand Still (2008)

I've been a fan of The Hooters for a long time, back before anyone outside of Philadelphia knew who they were, back when their songs more often than not possessed a ska or reggae influence. Those songs, and constant gigging all over the metropolitan area, cemented their reputation as a great live band. A few staples of their early 1980's stage show, most notably "All You Zombies" ended up on their major label debut, Nervous Night in 1985. However, with it's release they lost most of the reggae influences in their music as they became a slick 80s middle of the road hit maker.

Even so, the boys from The City Of Brotherly Love still offered a more distinctive sound than most 80s bands. They didn't live or die with the synthesizer and, in addition to the traditional lineup of rock instruments, they also employed accordion, concertina, mandolin, and the instrument from which the band took their name, the melodica, also known by its nickname, the hooter. It is largely because of these instruments that their songs are instantly recognizable as Hooters songs.

The band has always been led by keyboardist/vocalist Rob Hyman, who doubles on the hooter, and Eric Bazilian on lead vocals and guitar. Together they write almost all of the quintet's music. They have also done a lot of work outside of the band, much of it more successful than The Hooters own albums. Bazilian wrote "One Of Us" for Joan Osborne and Hyman co-wrote Cindy Lauper's big hit "Time after Time" with her.

The Hooters made quite a splash with the release of the platinum selling Nervous Night and they opened Live Aid that same year. However, none of their succeeding albums were as commercially successful as their debut and each one sold less than its predecessor. While American audiences moved on to other bands The Hooters became one of the biggest acts in Germany where they are still much loved today.

The band has recently reunited and stormed back with their first new studio CD in fourteen years, Time Stand Still. In addition to Hyman and Bazilian, the group's classsic lineup is back. Fran Smith Jr., bassist on the band's last two studio albums before they disbanded, is here. Also on board is guitarist John Lilley who joined in time for Nervous Night. Original drummer Dave Uosikkinen is also back.

Time Stand Still is mostly a typical Hooters album. All of the standard elements are there but a few surprises do pop up. "Morning Buzz" features a mandolin and some ridiculous barnyard noises as the guys use an acoustic format to sing about how great they feel in the morning. It also appears that the good feeling may be artificially induced but perhaps I'm reading too much into the lyrics of what is a rather dumb song. "Catch Of the Day" is an anthem about the joys of fishing that could be construed as a companion piece to "Morning Buzz" even though it's a better song. Based on those two tracks it sounds as if Hyman and Bazilian don't do a lot with their free time. "Free Again" ends with the full band jamming their hearts out. The Hooters are not a jam band but they offer up some very effective riffing on the song's long coda. There is also a fine acoustic cover of Don Henley's "Boys Of Summer." The rest is what you would expect from The Hooters.

The CD's lyrical content is mostly too upbeat to please the rock press who immediately dismiss anything that isn't hard edged or depressing. The disc opens with, "I'm Alive," a high powered celebration of life. The Hooters are a happy bunch and it shows. The track is made for radio and deserves to be a hit.

Time Stand Still may not be vintage Hooters but it's still nice to have the Philly boys back.