Monday, October 30, 2017

Elliot Schneider - Don't Put All Your Eggs in One Basketcase (2017)

Written by Mike Yoder, posted by blog admin

Elliot Schneider took the scenic route to making memorable music nearly two decades into the 21st century, but you finish Don’t Put All Your Eggs In One Basketcase believing he wouldn’t have had it any other way. The release is accompanied by some supplementary material intended, one would guess, to place Schneider’s life experience and musical education in the proper perspective and they are worthwhile listens, but the real meat on this release is the eleven songs constituting his latest studio album. These are tracks filled with sustained flashes of poetry, a firm command over a variety of rock and roll styles, and an assured vocal presence that deepens the emotional and occasional comedic aspects of the album. This is Schneider’s fourth solo album and finds his own dramatic and wildly improbable personal story evolving with all the unpredictable twists we discover in his music and, particularly, wordplay.

He announces the album’s excellence with tangible fanfare on the opening song “The Moon Has Flown Away”. There’s a quasi post-apocalyptic air to the song that he, thankfully, never overemphasizes and the pleasing musical accompaniment and likable vocals temper the lyrical darkness just enough without ever neutering it. “Diehard Killjoy” and “Lost on the Radio” take on a traditional rock and roll pose to two distinctly different ends – the former exhibits some of Schneider’s capacity for slightly cynical sense of humor while the other engages him in a bit of nostalgic reflection without ever risking sentimentality. His vocal on “Diehard Killjoy” manages to invoke both the light comedic elements and the speaker’s obvious disdain for the subject. “Are We Only Dinosaurs?” serves up some more of his quirky, distinctive sense of humor, this time shorn of the aforementioned song’s cynical bite. It has a nice uptempo thrust that never gets carried away with itself and some especially tasteful guitar work.

The big, ringing guitar chords and warm multi-part harmonies of “In a Sense Innocence” gives a pleasing veneer to another deceptively simple musical arrangement and lyric. The effortlessness behind an effort like this is totally beguiling – the track sounds like it sprang full borne from Schneider’s imagination, but we can only imagine that this is one of the more satisfying “tricks” on an album that makes everything sound off the cuff and utterly natural. He reverts to a classic rock stance once again for the track “Overruling Neo-Fascists”, but it’s spiked with an unexpected amount of fist waving attitude that Schneider hits just the right note with. Multi-part vocal harmonies play a key role once again on the song “First Day of Summer” and the folksy qualities of the performance and musical arrangement slot quite nicely near the album’s end. Another of the indisputable jewels on Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basketcase comes with the finale “I Just Don’t Really Know If You Exist”, an improbably titled stab, once again, in a folksy direction, but the lyrical content is obviously a little more unsettled. Schneider contrasts the slightly askew lyrical perspective with a straight forward and rather beautiful vocal performance. It is a shame we are not discussing this album in a scenario where Schneider has enjoyed a long and visible career in the music business and celebrating his fifteenth album release or more, but sometimes great talents are heard when it’s time to hear them. Elliot Schneider’s path, thankfully, led him back to recording music again and we are better for it.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Gregg Stewart - Twenty Sixteen (2017)

Written by Daniel Boyer, posted by blog admin

Gregg Stewart’s Twenty Sixteen might strike some listeners as a tribute album, but that isn’t Stewart’s avowed purpose. The unifying concept of the fourteen song album is that the performers who wrote or made these songs famous all died in 2016, a momentous year in terms of how many iconic musical figures passed away from the scene. Stewart selected songs from these artist’s catalogs and, refreshingly, doesn’t play to the obvious in regards to his choices. Some songs are rather famous, while others show Stewart’s familiarity with the artist by picking deep cuts instead. He thankfully isn’t content with duplicating the originals. Many of the covers on Twenty Sixteen are near total re-inventions with Stewart retaining the lyrics and changes, but little else. These are bold moves when they come. In the end, Twenty Sixteen is about something much more subtle than paying homage. This is a chronicle of influence and says just as much about Gregg Stewart as a feeling human being responsive to art as it does about the songwriters included on this release.

He couldn’t have picked a better song to open things with than “You Spin Me Round” from mid eighties English pop sensation Dead or Alive. The acoustic setting of the track dictates that Stewart can’t adopt the same stridency that propelled Pete Burns’ original vocal, but he’s wise to not ape Burns in any meaningful way. Stewart, instead, carves out his own individual niche for a vocal in this song and largely adheres to the basic structure of the original whilst coming off in a radically different way. He throws himself into the singing on George Michael’s “A Different Corner” with a total lack of inhibition and it helps him realize some of the blue-eyed soul emotiveness of Michael’s initial vocal. Once again, Stewart pursues an acoustic track with this song and, thus, it provides a very different listening experience from the original. It is clearly a cover, nonetheless, but Stewart wields his unique skill for transforming these songs just enough that they conclude with him owning some small but significant piece of their history. It seems improbable, but he succeeds doing that with Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” as well. The iconic singer/guitarist/songwriter scored many hits over his long career and “Raspberry Beret” likely ranks high among them, but it doesn’t intimidate Stewart at all. He manipulates and guides the familiar melody with skill and avoids attempting to mimic the trappings of Prince’s original in favor of something looser, uncluttered, and intimate.

Leon Russell’s “One More Love Song” gets a loving, knowing vocal treatment from Stewart and his take on the late Merle Haggard song “If I Could Only Fly”, written by Blaze Foley, should prompt Haggard fans to re-evaluate the unjustly ignored excellence defining the last half of his career. Stewart does an excellent job invoking Haggard’s original weathered soul while still imbuing his voice with an added wistfulness that’s all his own. "Sing a Song" is written by Maurice White from seminal act Earth, Wind, and Fire, but Stewart shows no misgivings attempting to interpret something from a style far removed from his own and infuses it with real energy. He covers Glen Frey’s “I Found Somebody” to gently rollicking effect and throws a vocal out that’s brimming over with grins and fueled by genuine zest. One of the best performances on the album comes with its penultimate track “Leaving the Table” as Stewart takes on a cut from Cohen’s recent and final album. It’s a relatively audacious move, but he’s chosen wisely as Stewart clearly puts everything of himself into delivering these oddly general but specific lyrics practically bursting with all manner of suggestiveness. There’s really nothing to not love about this jewel of a release. Gregg Stewart’s Twenty Sixteen is clearly motivated by something more important and personal than mere tribute and holds up under repeated listens.