Now Hear This!

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JJ Grey & Mofro – Country Ghetto
Alligator Records
Grade: A+

On their third album and Alligator Records debut, Southern blues rockers JJ Grey & Mofro deliver just what their hard-earned fans have come to expect: Southern influenced rock and roll drenched in sexy, sweaty soul sensibilities born of the swamplands of the dirty south. It is from this oft-maligned area of the country that smoldering front man JJ Grey draws inspiration for his front-porch roots style of storytelling reminiscent of such great southern storytellers as Flannery O’Connor and Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker. His poignant song craft relies heavily on the complex simplicity of minimalist compositions that provoke emotions and prod the heart with a pointy finger of truth that is as unflinching as it is penetrating and evocative. His powerful vocals have elements that fall somewhere between a younger John Fogerty or Van Morrison and a more recent Eddie Vedder. His delivery is equally informed by gospel soul of the church house and the funky R&B of darkened honky-tonks across town. Impressive as it is Grey’s presence is only one half of the alchemic magic that is JJ Grey & Mofro. Grey’s pointed lyrics and unmatched vocal delivery and presence are perfectly framed by his second-to-none bands who deliver stylistic arrangements that are texturally fascinating and musically entrancing. Their stage presence is something akin to a bluesy version of the roots rock of veteran southern rockers The Drive-By-Truckers.

JJ Grey & Mofro will be performing at the Exit/In on Elliston Place April 14 in support of Country Ghetto. If this band is half as good live as their album makes them out to be, then you’re in for one hell of a performance.

Amy Winehouse – Back to Black
UniversalRepublic Records
Grade: B+

If you haven’t heard of Amy Winehouse yet then you haven’t been within ten feet of a gay man since her sophomore album “Back to Black” dropped in March. I have to hand it to the 22 year-old Winehouse—not to mention the marketing machine that has made her a media darling for twenty-something’s everywhere. The album is a great modern tribute to the classic age of Motown with the British Winehouse playing the part of the young chanteuse of old. She has a gift for metaphor in her songwriting that belies her age and sass and power that immediately calls to mind Joss Stone’s first offering “The Soul Sessions”. There is a magical timeless quality present in Winehouse’s delivery that reminds the listener of the days when Diana Ross & the Supremes and Mary Wells dominated the charts. Mix in just the right amount of the funky flavor of modern R&B attitude and you’ve got a recipe for greatness. Her powerhouse vocals are coupled with hooky arrangements that follow a classic three-minute pop formula nothing short of infectious. It’s a good thing she can perform as well as she does too because the child is homely. Seriously! Someone at Universal Republic needs to pull her aside and have a serious talk about the “Wednesday Addams meets Christina Aguilera for tea and crumpets at Oz Fest” look. Regardless, it’s a great second offering and a definite step up from her first album. Amy Winehouse is definitely worth keeping an ear out for. Just try to avert your eyes until she grows into her nose.  

Willie Nelson/Merle Haggard/Ray Price – Last of the Breed
Lost Highway Records
Grade: C+

Okay, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a country music hater by any means and anyone who knows me knows that I am one of Willie Nelson’s greatest fans. While it is a great and rare treat to be able to hear Willie and Merle Haggard together again, I have to admit that “Last of the Breed” seemed a bit hollow to my ear. The production is great and the collection of classic country/western covers is fairly comprehensive, but after about fifteen minutes into it I was ready for it to end. It really seemed forced and overdone in a way that I find hard to explain. Suffice to say that while I have nothing but the greatest of respect for all three of the performers—and I am certain that the attendees of the tour dates supporting the album left with memories they will cherish for a long time to come—I felt the album was needlessly gratuitous and lost my interest before the first of the two disk set was half done. Old school country purists will likely enjoy this set but the average listener can give a listen to Willie’s last two solo offerings instead if they get a jones for some classic Texas twang.

Ryland Angel – Self-Titled
Manhattan Records
Grade D-

PBS-heads brace yourselves! If you love to watch “Stop & Drop Opera” late nights on the Arts channel until you pass out on the couch then this album is for you. Ryland Angel is the newest addition to the seeming legion of singers with classical opera training trying to ply their trade in the pop world al la Josh Groban or IL Devo (IL Icko!).

Angel has a great voice (despite the fact that I tend not to like countertenors much vocally) but the music is altogether wrong. The arrangements seem forced and uninteresting and Angel’s delivery lacks conviction. Much of the classic music is dumbed-down and downright boring while the more pop-oriented tunes are too much of a stretch for Angel’s limited range. Angel doesn’t seem to have any chemistry with the music or the audience and this collection of his work leaves the listener cold—and asleep.