Neil Young + Promise Of The Real: The Visitor [Album Review] 0 389

Neil Young + Promise Of The Real: The Visitor [Album Review] 0 390

Neil Young + Promise Of The Real
The Visitor
Reprise Records [2017]

Fire Note Says: At 72, Neil Young is still making a difference, wearing his politics on his sleeve, and producing anthems for the resistance.

Album Review: Neil Young has never been an artist to shrink back from a difficult political moment and leave you guessing what’s on his mind. Back in 1970, he released “Southern Man” about America’s issues with race, and “Ohio” which honored those who had died in the Kent State protests against the war in Vietnam. And as recently as 2006, he spent the entire Living With War album taking apart the Bush Administration and it’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That same year, Young hit the road with Crosby, Stills & Nash to revisit all their past protest songs which had a renewed sense of relevance. It was funny to hear stories from that tour of long-time fans walking out of their shows angry when Young performed “Let’s Impeach the President,” because their politics had grown more conservative. You can catch a glimpse of the audience response in the tour documentary film, “CSNY Déjà Vu.”

So it should surprise no one, that here in 2017, in one of the most contentious political seasons that anyone can remember, that Young has a few things to get off his mind about the Trump administration. This is Young’s second album with the Promise of the Real, a band fronted by two of Willie Nelson’s sons, Lukas and Micah. Their first collaboration with the 2015 album, The Monsanto Years, taking on the issue of GMO’s in much the same way that 2003’s Greendale addressed the way environmental issues and economic difficulties were impacting small time American life. Between those two albums, Young released the solo album, Peace Trail, recorded with studio musicians, and Hitchhiker, a solo acoustic album recorded in 1976. Together with Young’s launching a website that makes available to fans everything he’s ever recorded and released in one location,, it’s obvious that this 72 year old is still feeling vital and productive.

Young wastes little time getting to the point on The Visitor. Right from the start, Young confesses to his Canadian heritage, before assuring anyone within reach that he loves “the USA… The Freedom to Act, the Freedom to Say.” Declaring that America is “Already Great,” a clear reference to Trump’s “MAGA” theme, Young says, “you’re the promised land, the helping hand,” and then echoing protesters chants of “No wall/No hate/No fascist USA” and “Who’s street?/Our street,” a sentiment expressed in the recent anti-police violence protests in St. Louis this Fall. So there’s no hidden agenda here, Young’s still wearing his politcs on his sleeve.

The Nelson boys and their Promise of the Real cohorts are a good fit for Young’s music here, capable to get heavy like he has in the past with Crazy Horse, but also proficient with the loose jam band/Americana vibe that comes just as naturally to Young. Of course, on an anthem like “Stand Tall,” Young’s polemic is a call to action against the current administration, of which he says “The Boy King don’t believe in Science/It goes against the Big Money Truth/His playpen is full of Deniers/They’ll flush our future down the tubes,” and tellingly you can hear a Creationist voice their belief that the earth is only 6000 years old, as the song comes to the end. In the second verse he celebrates women’s rights, and the rainbow of diverse humanity. This is clearly an album aimed at the Resistance.”

On a couple of tracks, Young seems so angry he can’t even find the words to express it. In “Diggin’ a Hole,” Young is worried about the world we’re leaving to his grandchildren in this blues call and response, they’re “gonna need a long rope” he sings, to get out of that hole. In “When Bad Got Good,” Young proves to be prescient, as the song hangs on the “lock him up,” chant that was in the news the week after the record was released when General Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, but Young was aiming his venom at “the Liar in Chief.”

But not everything here is obviously a political rant against our President. “Change of Heart,” feels vaguely autobiographical, the reflection of someone looking back over their life and acknowledging the ways they’ve grown and stretched and changed their mind. “Carnival” brings a Latin rhythm to a parable about a child’s experience of the Circus Freak Show which can at times resemble the everyday life we share. “Children of Destiny,” complete with full orchestration, is a call to action again, but more generally, Young wants us all to “Stand up for what you believe/Resist the powers that be/Preserve the land and save the seas.”

Musically, Young is not reinventing the wheel, this is Young’s country influenced folk/rock, supported by a band of youngsters not very different from when he was recording his early albums with the Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills & Nash. “Forever,” is a secular hymn of sorts, celebrating that “Earth is like a church without a preacher,” and “the people have to pray for themselves.” You can hear Neil struggling to hit the high notes, and it’s going to feel reminiscent to this artful rocker, who is sure even at this late date that he wants “to make a difference… on the road to heaven’s door.” And, as in his past, these songs will live on in the souls of people who find his words and music an encouragement on the journey. Not many of us will still be making work that stands up alongside our best efforts when in our 70’s, but Neil Young is beating the odds.

Key Tracks: “Already Great” / “Children of Destiny” / “Stand Tall”

Artists With Similar Fire: Bob Dylan / Willie Nelson / Crosby, Stills & Nash

Neil Young Website
Neil Young Facebook
Reprise Records

– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb

Brian Q. Newcomb

Brian Q. Newcomb

Brian Quincy Newcomb has found work as rock critic and music journalist since the early 80's, contributing over the years to Billboard Magazine, Paste, The Riverfront Times, and The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Brian Q. Newcomb
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Ruby Boots: Don’t Talk About It [Album Review] 0 498

Ruby Boots
Don’t Talk About It
Bloodshot Records [2018]

Fire Note Says: Aussie country rocker with promise debuts States-side for Bloodshot Records.

Album Review: The second album from Ruby Boots roars out of the gate with “It’s So Cruel,” a cow-punk rocker that recalls the energy of Jason & The Scorchers. But before you get your hopes up, producer Beau Bedford (of The Texas Gentlemen), perhaps eager to display the singer/songwriter’s versatility, offers her up in the big doo-wop wall of sound of “Believe In Heaven,” nostalgic for the early days when Phil Spector was producing girl groups as rock & roll was first finding it’s way into the mainstream. “Don’t Talk About It,” the album’s title track, follows. It’s another ballad with orchestration that draws inspiration from that old school retro-sound.

Ruby Boots (real name, Bex Chilcott) comes from Australia via Nashville and had one previous album on an Aussie imprint before this debut on Bloodshot Records, a journey made by Kasey Chambers and others. Following the first three big production numbers, Boots sounds more at home on “Easy Way Out,” with a chord progression borrowed from the Tom Petty songbook, and the country weeper “Don’t Break My Heart Twice.”

The second half of the album sticks closer to country/rock formulas, with “I’ll Make It Through,” co-written and with harmony vocals by Nikki Lane, “Somebody Else” and “Infatuation,” are set up by punchy rhythms, strong vocal hooks, and solid, rocking guitars and minimal twang. Okay Boots has some twang in her voice on “Infatuation.” On these three, and the closing angry, country kick you to the curb slow burner with bluesy guitar and honky-tonk piano/organ that is “Don’t Give a Damn,” Boots sounds a bit like a young Lucinda Williams as the song heats up like a Rolling Stones’ song.

It’s the nearly a capella, almost hymnic “I Am A Woman,” that exhibits Boots’ voice in all it’s unique purity, in a spiritual song that declares her feminine gifts and her internal strength of being, echoing strength alongside vulnerability. On the whole this is a solid, inviting outing, driven by good songs and equally solid performances. Ruby Boots will be one to watch.

Key Tracks: “It’s So Cruel” / “Easy Way Out” / “Infatution”

Artists With Similar Fire: Nikki Lane / Lone Justice / Lydia Loveless

Ruby Boots Website
Ruby Boots Facebook
Bloodshot Records

– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb

Brian Q. Newcomb

Brian Q. Newcomb

Brian Quincy Newcomb has found work as rock critic and music journalist since the early 80's, contributing over the years to Billboard Magazine, Paste, The Riverfront Times, and The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Brian Q. Newcomb

Bill Mallonee & The Big Sky Ramblers: Forest Full Of Wolves [Album Review] 1 885

Bill Mallonee & The Big Sky Ramblers
Forest Full of Wolves
Self-Released [2018]

Fire Note Says: Bill Mallonee is one of those best-kept secrets you really want to share with the rest of the music loving world.

Album Review: No one is ever going to call singer/songwriter Bill Mallonee an under-achiever. His latest release, a 10 song full-length effort, Forest Full of Wolves is his 78th album by his own count. Mallonee spent the 1990s fronting the Athens, GA-band Vigilantes of Love, shuffling from one label to the next, driving a van from coast-to-coast playing every alternative rock/Americana friendly venue who would let them. Hometown friend, Peter Buck (R.E.M.) co-produced one of the band’s early more-acoustic albums, the Killing Floor. The band’s 1999 album, released on three different labels of the course of 18 months, Audible Sigh was produced by Nashville’s favorite side-man Buddy Miller, and includes a guest vocal by Emmylou Harris, as well as some of Mallonee’s best loved songs. Paste Magazine has named him one of the 100 greatest living songwriters.

A rough count, say there were 10 songs per release (usually there were more), puts Mallonee’s songwriting output at nearly 8000, and those are the one’s he’s recorded. Now basic logic would suggest that they can’t all be good, and surely not all of them are memorable, but Mallonee’s work, his actual raison d’’etre, has proven especially consistent over the decades, and in the 2010’s he’s delivered a solid album’s worth of tunes each year, with a noticeable uptick in production values starting with 2011’s The Power & The Glory. Last year’s excellent The Rags of Absence was a case in point, with Mallonee especially attentive to his lead guitar parts.

Forest Full of Wolves continues to chronicle the challenges to working class people and even songwriters, as if Mallonee is creating his own musical version of John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” for what he calls this “new dark age.” “Greed and fear (have) gained the upper hand,” he sings in “Changing of the Guard,” so he’s “grabbed a guitar & a notebook or two… became a phantom with some conjuring ‘neath the moon.”

Musically, Wolves takes the energy of Rags to the next level, with bigger, noiser guitar tones. Mallonee captures a Neil Young jamming with Crazy Horse in the garage vibe throughout, which is likely a lot harder to pull off since Mallonee’s playing all the instruments. Mid-tempo alternative country rock at it’s most earnest and relevant, and against all odds, Mallonee manages to offer a word of hope. “In the New Dark Age” he sings, borrowing the title from a different song that he recording on 2014’s The Winnowing, “the best thing you can do is fall in love.” Of course, “Love Is Always Risky Currency,” but it’s the best chance any of us have of surviving in this “Forest Full of Wolves.”

Like many artists scrambling to make art in the challenging digital marketplace and survive financially Mallonee has struggled to reach out and connect with Americana fans, break ground with new audiences, even though he’s stayed off the road in recent years. As a fan who first heard the singer songwriter live in the early 90’s, and many times over the years, Bill Mallonee is one of those best-kept secrets you really want to share with the rest of the music loving world. It’s artists who wear their passion on their sleeves, who keep pouring out their hearts in songs, that make the music that matters. (One reason to order the hard CD copy of this one, is the cover art produced by another singer songwriter, Chris Taylor, from San Antonio, TX.).

Key Tracks: “In the New Dark Age” / “Voodoo Ink” / “Trimmed & Burning”

Artists With Similar Fire: Neil Young / Bob Dylan / John Prine

Bill Mallonee Website
Bill Mallonee Facebook

– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb

Brian Q. Newcomb

Brian Q. Newcomb

Brian Quincy Newcomb has found work as rock critic and music journalist since the early 80's, contributing over the years to Billboard Magazine, Paste, The Riverfront Times, and The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Brian Q. Newcomb

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