Music Reviews

Arranged alphabetically, by artist. See also full alphabetical listing and chronological listing.

Rock n Roll
Ryan Adams
Lost Highway Records, November 2003
Buy this CD

Workaholic wunderkid Adams spits out his third release in four weeks, but forget the jangly Buddy Holly-meets-Steve Earle pop of his 2001 masterpiece Gold, or the twitchy introspection of the recent two-part Love Is Hell. Instead we get sneering balls-to-the-wall rawk, jacked up to eleven, full of seventies crunch and nineties grunch. Yet Adams remains a compelling songwriter, and his heart-on-his-sleeve approach, voracious appetite for stylistic experimentation and obvious affection for rock'n'roll in all its guises bodes well for his future. Inspirational verse: "It's totally f***ed up, but I wish you were here."

Honkin' on Bobo
Sony Records, March 2004
Buy this CD

Steve and the boyz joyfully bring da noize in this raunchy blues and r&b tribute album. They may lack the scholarly reverence and restraint of Professor Higgins-Clapton's released-on-the-same-day Me and Mr. Johnson, but Steve and the boys show more passion, sweat and sweet emotion in Shame Shame Shame alone than "God" shows in his entire album. They rip through Eyesight to the Blind like they've got Townshednd on their trail, and they floor it on Road Runner. This is two-fisted party blues without apology, all guts and glory, and Aerosmith positively kills. Who knew? Boyz, rock your girlz.

Johhny Cash
Columbia/Legacy, May 2000
Buy this CD

The original hillbilly gangsta's personal selection of favorite recordings of "robbers, liars and murderers" from the last forty odd years. Tarantino says in the razor-sharp liner notes that these tracks cut "right to the heart of the American underclass. With their brutal sheriffs, pitiless judges, cheatin' tramps, escaped fugitives, condemned men, chain gang prisoners, unjustly accused innocents, and first-person protagonist who'd shoot a man just to watch him die, Cash's songs are poems to the criminal mentality." Or, as The Man in Black himself puts it, "These songs are just for listening and singing. Don't go out and do it." Brutal, but real.

Songs From the Analog Playground
The Charlie Hunter Quartet
Blue Note, September 2001
Buy this CD

Attempts to pigeonhole this are doomed to failure. The Quartet plays alternately dreamy/boppy stripped-down funk-jazz-soul-r'n'b, and the list of guest vocalists and material is equally eclectic. Nora Jones reinvents Roxy Music's More Than This as a feathery dream of longing, Galactica funkster Theryl de Clouet channels Dr. John in Earth, Wind & Fire's Mighty Mighty and digs deep into Spoonful, hip hop's Mos Def almost-croons in Creole and jazzbo Kurt Elling beams in with Close Your Eyes. The common factor is Hunter's tasty trademark eight-string guitar, John Ellis' equally yummy sax, perky percussion and always-solid grooves. So set the pigeons free. It's just music, okay?

Me and Mr. Johnson
Eric Clapton
Warner Brothers, March 2004
Buy this CD

DISCLAIMER: No deals with the devil were signed to make this album. This too-respectful, too-tasteful, no-brainer collection of Robert Johnson covers (a Grammy shoe-in) trips up on its own reverence. Clapton evidently used up most of his mojo somewhere around Layla (the fiery 1970 original, not the lame 1992 bongo-pongo unplugged version), and it shows. There was real darkness in Johnson's damned and doomed blues, not to mention a raucous, earthy vitality, that are barely evident here. Professor Clapton gets kudos for trying, and it's all good clean fun, but nothing here will scare the horses or risk tenure. File under "Hush Puppies on My Trail."

See also: Aerosmith, Honkin' on Bobo

Up on the Roof/Under the Boardwalk
The Drifters
Collectables, July 1998
Buy this CD

This bargain-priced CD of two early sixties albums offers pop music so romantic and lush it should come with a spoon. But it never wimps out -- the Ben E. King-era Drifters may have sounded like eternal optimists, always pegging their hopes on somewhere better (Up on the Roof, Under the Boardwalk or On Broadway), but they weren't fools. There Goes My Baby remains one of rock's most wrenching ballads, and when King sings of times like This Magic Moment being so precious and so few, you could hear a heart crack. So don't forget who's taking you home, baby. Essential.

The Bootleg Series, Volume 6:
Live 1964: Concert at Philharmonic Hall
Bob Dylan
Sony, March 2004
Buy this CD

What's not to love? Dylan, young, hungry, pissed-off, and already bemused by his fame, yet still eager to please. This all-acoustic concert -- recorded Hallowe'en 1964 just before he went electric -- certainly doesn't lack electricity. Armed with just a guitar, harmonica and Joan Baez (oh, well) on four tracks, he's squeezing out sparks all over this two-CD set. All the early stuff is here, including a blistering, finger-pointing "The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll." Rare tracks like "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues," "Who Killed Davey Moore?" and the flirty, poppy "If You Gotta Go, Go Now" just seal the deal. 

Just an American Boy: The Audio Documentary
Steve Earle
Artemis Records, September 2003
Buy this CD

Earle's previous live effort, Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator, was simply one of the great live rock'n'roll albums, a snarling, defiant shitkicker version of Exile on Main Street that neither asked for, nor gave no quarter. By contrast, this one (culled from an upcoming documentary) begs indulgence. The lengthy between-song patter is heartfelt but tiresome, and the over-boiled performances grate, a ferocious, muddy roar lacking the heart and nuance of Earle's best work. And there's little funny about his long-awaited but ultimately misguided, ham-handed cover of Costello's Peace, Love and Understanding. Disappointing.

The Girl In The Other Room
Diana Krall
Verve, April 2004
Buy this CD

The barefoot gal from Nanaimo goes global, and jazzbo fetishists be damned. This heartfelt album of tasty covers (Tom Waits' Temptation and a smouldering Chris Smithers' Love Me like a Man are standouts) and soulful originals co-written with new hubby Elvis Costello shows there's life beyond the vanity factory car commercials. Krall does what she does best -- tickling the ivories and wrapping her misty vocals all around some great tunes, including a startingly vulnerable Almost Blue and Departure Bay, a surprisingly effective self-penned ode to Krall's British Columbia hometown that shimmers with a sad nostalgia that will crack your heart. Welcome back, eh?

Another Country
Graham Parker
Bloodshot Records, March 2004
Buy this CD

Fortunately, the laidback Americana vibe (ie: pedal steel, jews harp, harmonica, etc.) slapped on top of everything can't quite bury Parker's trademark sneer-and-snarl. Never "your average clown," Parker's usually needle-sharp songwriting seem curiously muted here and there's a disappointing mid-tempo sameness. Cruel Lips, a Dylanesque kiss-off with Lucinda Williams warbling politely in the background could/should have been a full-blooded duet, Nation of Shopkeepers sounds like secondhand Costello, of all people, and a remake of his own Crawling From the Message is a respectful but clunky misstep. There's plenty of slow burn, but this eternal contender's best when he roars – you'd think by now at least half his brain would get the message.

The Essential Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen
Columbia Records, November 2003
Buy this CD

"Essential" finally does The Boss right, easily trumping 1995's skimpy "Greatest Hits" which was, truthfully, often neither, cold-shouldering as it did his early days, replacing long-time fan faves like Blinded By the Light or Rosalita with questionable and often non-representative fare like the rinky-dink Hungry Heart and the lame Empty Garden. Of course, long-time fans will already have everything on the first two disks, so it's the third "bonus" disk, full of rarities and extras, that's the real treat here. Highlights include From Small Things (previously covered by Dave Edmunds) and a ballsy cover of Elvis' Viva Las Vegas that shreds the original. Hit me.

The Soul Sessions
Joss Stone
S-Curve Records, September 2003
Buy this CD

The way Joss Stone steams up Grand Funk's hoary old Some Kind of Wonderful stirs up things I should definitely NOT be feeling for a sixteen-year old. Stone, a kid from Britain, delivers plenty of old school soul on her sizzling debut, singing with a confident sensibility and often, sensuality, that belies her age. Producer Betty Wright, no slouch in the soul department herself, has picked a solid collection of almost-forgotten soul nuggets, added the White Stripes' Fell in Love with a (Boy) for the kiddies, and come up with a super-duper stone soul monster. Watch this kid.

Then & Now! 1964-2004
The Who
Geffen Records, April 2004
Buy this CD

Yet another fine introduction to a group that shouldn't need one after all those years, with compilation albums now sadly outnumbering actual Who studio albums. Heavily slanted to the "then" side, this optimistically titled collection (given that only Townshend and Daltrey remain) offers 18 of the usual suspects (My Generation, Pinball Wizard, etc.) while serving up only two "now" tracks: Old Red Wine is merely so-so, Pete and Roger on auto pilot, but Real Good Looking Boy is primo Townshend, an edgy, witty, Quadrophenic stab at teen envy, Elvis Presley, alienation and rock'n'roll dreams, that bodes well for the Who's continued half-life. Long live rock.

The Beauty of the Rain
Dar Williams
Razor & Tie, February 2003
Buy this CD

Clever lightweight neo-folk-pop, name-checking dreams (lost), souls (like fire), birds (flying away) and rain (the beauty thereof). Much of the jingle-jangle warmth of college fave Williams' earlier work, like 2000's The Green World, is replaced by a certain slick studio coolness, but fortunately the songs are strong enough to survive. Tiny details like the plucky bounce of Bela Fleck's banjo on Closer To Me, John Popper's harmonica on I Saw a Bird Fly Away or Cliff Eberhardt's soulful counterpoint vocals on the slightly too reverent reworking of the Band's Whispering Pines help, adding some much needed warmth and humanity. Classy.

Riding Shotgun
Steve Wynn
Bug Music, February 2004
You can buy this CD's at

With its pulpy artwork and the promo name-dropping of every crimewriter from Hammett to Pelecanos, it's clear what audience this limited-edition collection of Wynn's recent noir-tinged work is aiming for. But there's truth in them thar blurbs – Wynn's a sharp songwriter, combining the cock-eyed existentialist angst of Dutch Leonard or James Cain's small-time losers with the big-time dreams of Springsteen and the bruised romanticism of Chandler, all wrapped up in sweeping guitars and a backbeat as unrelenting as original sin. As the fatalistic pillpopper in Amphetamine might say, "this is music to live by until the day you die."

Neil Young & Crazy Horse
Reprise, August 2003
Buy this CD

With that heart of gold firmly on his sleeve, Neil finally unleashes his inner-Townshend, crafting an honest-to-goodness concept album about the small, fictional town of Greendale, California. The murky plot serves its purpose, though, giving Young a hook for his rather cranky state-of-the-union address. The sardonic wit and pointed jabs of tunes like Falling From Above and the majestic lyrical sweep of Be the Rain belie the laidback vibe of the music and make Greendale arguably his strongest work since Silver and Gold. The unrepentant, idealistic Young may be a dreamer, but he's not the only one.

Greendale (2nd edition)
Neil Young & Crazy Horse
Reprise, February 2004
Buy this CD

There's nothing new here, just a slightly shifty repackaging of last year's acclaimed Greendale CD with a different bonus DVD. "Inside Greendale" features Neil and the boys in the studio cobbling together one of his strongest albums in years, with shots from the recently-released film serving mostly as backdrop, but the story is as murky as ever. The passion displayed in Young's songs "for freedom" are undeniable, but last year's bonus disk, featuring Neil performing the entire album solo in concert, was far more effective. This note's for you, Neil: pure marketing, for completists only.


Beautiful: A Tribute To Gordon Lightfoot
Various Artists
Borealis Records, October 2003
Buy this CD

These covers by fellow Canadians Bruce Cockburn, Blue Rodeo, the Cowboy Junkies and the Tragically Hip underscore how stiriring and evocative a songsmith Lightfoot can be, a true folk troubador whose open-hearted, sweeping vision eschews goosestepping patriotism for a genuine love of the land and its people, from the myths from "long before the white man and long before the wheel" to the bleak realities of "black days in July" and beyond. Aengus Finnan's moving original, Lightfoot, caps off an emotional, long-overdue tribute to one of the greats. Not just beautiful but a beauty, eh?

Hard Revolution: The Soundtrack to the Novel by George Pelecanos
Various Artists
Warner, March 2004
Buy this CD

This one's a no-brainer. Eight stone-cold classic sixties soul ringers (Don't Fight It, Born Under a Bad Sign, etc.) hand-picked by Washington, D.C. crime novelist Pelecanos provide a dead-on soundtrack accompaniment to his novel of the same title, a passionate retelling of private eye hero Derek Strange's glory days as a young black police officer. It's a man's man's man's world here, and most of the usual suspects from Stax & Atlantic get their props -- Otis, Sam & Dave, Wilson, Percy, Solomon – but if there aren't any surprises, well, with stuff this good, who cares? And the book ain't bad either.

Kill Bill Volume 1 Original Soundtrack
Various Artists
Maverick, September 2003
Buy this CD

Uber-nerd Tarantino is one of the few directors whose soundtracks actually capture the essence of their work, and this one is as smart, geeky and over-the-top as his blood-soaked chop suey/spaghetti western action flick. Selections range from Nancy Sinatra's Bang Bang and the Ironside TV theme to Japanese girl group 5, 6,7,8's' giddy phonetic rock, Zamfir and Charlie Feathers rockabilly, with dialogue excerpts tossed in to spice up the mix. Docked a notch because the Human Beinz' Nobody But Me is MIA. C'mon, Q, the other piggies need wiggling too!

Rock Against Bush, Volume 1
Various Artists
Fat Wreck Chords, April 2004
Buy this CD

Pop-punk tries to grows up by kicking out the jams and horking a big one at Dubya. Highlights include Sum 41's name-calling Moron (Oh, those Canadians!), Billy Bragg bestows an old leftie's blessing on Less Than Jake's The Brightest Bulb Has Burned Out and World Inferno's shambling, folky Expatriate Act adds jingo to the jangle. This priced-to-own high-energy CD comes armed with a DVD and liner notes full of informative and enthusiastic -- if sometimes over-enthusiastic – arguments against "the dangerous and deadly policies" of the administration. An embarrassment of pissed-off, righteous riches, snotty but encouraging.

The Singing Detective Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Various Artists
Image Entertainment, October 2003
Buy this CD

Soundtrack to the hit-and-miss big-screen remake of the TV cult fave about an author feverishly rewriting his life even as he faces his own possible Big Sleep swaps the original's big band-era tunes for classic 1950s-era doo wop and rock'n'roll. Robert Downey Jr. offers the only new recording, a soulful, bare-knuckled cover of In My Dreams. Goodies include Gene Vincent's original, Johnnie Ray's Just Walking In The Rain, The Chordettes' Mr. Sandman and Conway Twitty's eerily appropriate It's Only Make Believe. A tasty selection, balancing the expected with some genuine sleepers that deserve to be heard again. Dreamy. Am I right or am I right?


Another fine site developed and maintained by The Thrilling Detective Web Guy

Site contents copyright © 2004-05 by Kevin Burton Smith.