7 Deadly Zens
Former Styx guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw may have been rockin' the Paradise while Night Ranger was still dreaming of a bar tab and enough gas money to reach their next gig, but the two bands' careers have become increasingly intertwined over the years.
One of the dominant radio and concert acts of the late Seventies/early Eighties, Styx blended cocksure progressive rock with a Midwestern working-class ethic, yielding a string of album-rock staples including "Grand Illusion," "Blue Collar Man," and "Come Sail Away." But it's the gooey power ballads "Babe" and "The Best of Times" that most people remember best, hits immortalized at countless weddings and high school proms of the era. Just as Styx's popularity began to wane, Night Ranger took off, spinning big hair, fat chords, and blustery melodrama into a new golden sound of success, with glitzy arena-ready anthems such as 1982's "Don't Tell Me You Love Me" and the bombastic "Sister Christian," a Top 5 hit in 1984.
By the early Nineties both groups were all but forgotten, as was the solo career Shaw had embarked on after Styx's '84 breakup. But when he and Night Ranger bassist Jack Blades teamed in 1990 with Ted Nugent in the group Damn Yankees, success came around again. The fist-pumping, Bic-flicking supergroup answered the wail of grunge with indulgent lead guitar and yearning pop hooks; the hits "High Enough" and "Where You Goin' Now" followed. Well, now all three groups are back together; Night Ranger has released Seven, and Styx and Damn Yankees are working on new records. Blades and Shaw have also finished their latest projects.
On 7 Deadly Zens, Shaw's fourth solo record, he lets his boyhood roots show a bit, folding in influences from his days playing in soul revues, cabaret shows, and pick-up bands in Montgomery, Alabama. Particularly nice are the slinky soul ballads "Who I Am" and "All in How You Say It," and "Half a Mind," a mountain-tinged duet with bluegrass diva Allison Krauss that, surprisingly, accommodates both artists' disparate styles. Blades and Nugent also guest on the record, and they are especially welcome on "Ocean," the energetic lead track. Blades is a solid sideman, and Nugent's playing is actually restrained here, magnifying the effect when he finally lets it rip.
"Diamond" is another nice surprise, contrasting Shaw's bright, effusive vocal with the emotional espionage played out in his dark twangy surf guitar lines. And on "Inspiration" the ringing acoustic guitar and clucking percussion of the verse segue into a stomping electric chorus, then into the sound collage "Mona Lisa," ending with an other-worldly gale of hosannas and sinister crosstalk. There are also a number of tunes pulled straight from Shaw's old bag of AOR tricks, such as "Straight Down the Line" and "A Place to Call My Own," but even the standard-issue songs here have strong arrangements and interesting twists.
Eddie Ashworth's powerful mix pumps up the guitars and percussion, but he also does a great job of smoothly blending piano, a string quartet, and other instruments into the album's twelve tracks. His and Shaw's assured production gives coherence to the diversity here, from tight, speaker-popping grooves and sound-loop experiments to hearty love songs that land their punches just to the left of the sugar bowl.
Night Ranger is less successful in moving forward on Seven, the group's first new offering in ten years, and their biggest noise since "Sister Christian" fueled the climactic firecracker scene of Boogie Nights. That bit of celluloid may have mistakenly convinced the guys of their continued relevance, but they at least make a valiant and energetic attempt to matter here. "Sign of the Times" is a great opener, a tough, fun, rebel rocker that reads like a personal ad for the lost generation. "Do you like walking in the rain/With holes in your pockets?" Blades sneers at his smashmouth girl, as the guitar lines peel off in the distance, following up with "Do you like drinking coffee/At an outdoor cafe/Dissing all the people/They're just trying to live their lies away." "Panic in Jane" is also quite cool, as the listener walks through the day with another disaffected, cynical gal as her world collapses to a chugging beat and a roaring chorus.
Then there is "Kong," a panting sexual romp with a conscience that pays homage to the machismo of the great cinema ape. But while Blades claims he wants a mate instead of a "Barbie doll, a rubber lover, or a phone-sex goddess," the song's smarmy, "pretty mama" jive talk throughout suggests he's stuck in reverse on the evolutionary treadmill. "Soul Survivor," "Sea of Love," and "Peace Sign," meanwhile, are serviceable attempts to recapture old glories, albeit with a heightened sense of social awareness and commentary, but the songs all begin to run together after a while. Seven provides a partial antidote to Night Ranger's familiar histrionics, but it also poisons their ambitions with the same old Top 40 goo that leaves fans satiated and the rest of us queasy.
-- Robin Myrick
Live at the It Club Complete
Originally released in 1982 as a double album, this new two-disc version of Live at the It Club restores some longer versions of songs that appeared in abbreviated form on that vinyl release and adds some never-before-heard material from the original. Recorded on two successive nights in the fall of 1964 at the legendary Los Angeles jazz venue the It Club, this set captures Monk on piano with his group: Charlie Rouse on tenor sax, Larry Gales on bass, and Ben Riley on drums. Although this release doesn't approach the heights of his best recorded work, it does serve as an interesting document of what Monk's quartet sounded like on a typical club date in the mid-Sixties. And what constituted typical club fare for Monk during that period was pretty damn good.
The quartet relies on what had become standards in Monk's live repertoire -- "Bemsha Swing," "Straight, No Chaser," "Rhythm-A-Ning," "Misterioso," "Round Midnight," and, of course, the set-closing "Epistrophy." No big surprises in the choice of material. The revelation comes when you hear how expertly Monk integrates himself as a band member. On earlier and later recordings in his career he often overwhelmed and overshadowed his sidemen in the recording studio and on the bandstand. To coin a cliche, you get a chance to hear democracy in action throughout It Club. Rouse, Gales, and Riley are his equals here, following and often anticipating Monk's frequent angular turns. Monk lays out a lot, letting the sax, bass, and drums stretch familiar songs into new dimensions. Even the bass and drum solos sound fresh. Nothing much you haven't heard before, but then it's all in the way you listen.
-- Ross Johnson
It is fitting that this debut by the former Brand New Heavies vocalist ends with an inspired raveup featuring New Orleans's Rebirth Brass Band. Like the brass-band music at Donna's Bar and Grill, a nook of refuge from the madness of Bourbon Street, N'Dea Davenport overflows with exuberance and warmth, and the personality of the album is so winning and so uplifting that it overpowers any perceivable weaknesses, not that there are many.
In fact, it is undoubtedly because of the strength of this album that songs tackling big issues might seem thin lyrically. We expect them to say more, yet they are very satisfying musically. "When the Night Falls" sums up prostitution and addiction with the trite "It's kind of freaky," but the feeling Davenport gives those words is, appropriately, unrelieved anxiety and misery. The Daniel Lanois co-written "Real Life" seems content to point out that ageism and violence are bad things, but the pain in Davenport's voice is arresting.
That voice unifies everything here, which is saying a lot since this album brings together a huge chunk of pop music as a whole. The steamy funk of "Bring It On" (co-written by hot Atlanta producer Dallas Austin and musical ringer Colin Wolfe) flows seamlessly into the deep house "No Never Again," which is relieved by the ethereal electronica of "In Wonder." The album also extends its reach to the beautiful horn-driven blues balladry of "Save Your Love for Me" and finds its way to a cover of Neil Young's "Old Man." The freshness of Davenport's vocals making both sound so contemporary that the description "retro" would seem misplaced. Like a jazz technician whose heart lies in pop and soul, Davenport brings her considerable talents (which include the production of all but four cuts) to brilliant emotional focus every time out. The fire she lights is like manna from Heaven, or the warm touch of a friend.
-- Danny Alexander
Face to Face
Say hello to a lost classic. The shimmering jewel in the British Castle label's exhaustive excavation of the Kinks' back catalogue, Face to Face has been out of print in the United States for the better part of the three decades since its 1966 release. Which is too bad, because along with Revolver, The Who Sell Out, and Aftermath, Face to Face is both the finest album produced just after the early-Sixties British Invasion and the best piece of work of Kinks frontman Ray Davies' tragically overrated career.
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Face to Face captures Davies' writing just before he succumbed completely to the construction of foppy set pieces and dancehall-derived character studies at the expense of scorching stompers ("You Really Got Me," "Till the End of the Day") and aching ballads à la "Set Me Free" and "I Need You." Which means there's a tough edge to the band's nascent psychedelia (witness "Rosie Won't You Please Come Home," with a popping bass melody and ominous twelve-string guitar) and an exploratory streak to the rockers (the slide-guitar-crazed "Holiday in Waikiki" and the delirious groove that propels "Most Exclusive Residence for Sale" and "You're Lookin' Fine"). And while the album is dominated by pop-gem minimovies -- the runaway in "Rosie," the creatively bereft "Session Man," the womanizing "Dandy," the hard-luck loser in "Sunny Afternoon" -- its centerpiece is the haunting "Too Much on My Mind"; it's among the usually aloof Davies' most confessional moments.
But that's not why the Castle reissue of this long-gone benchmark is worth the higher import price. Nope, it's for two of the seven bonus cuts: "This Is Where I Belong" and "I'm Not Like Everybody Else." On the former, a beautiful love song, the band comes up with an astonishing amalgam of their own garage rock and the folk-tinged stuff Bob Dylan was perfecting with Highway 61 Revisited. The latter, written by Ray's guitar-playing brother Dave Davies, is a swaggering, prepunk anthem of identity, rebellion, and self-purpose -- just the kind of thing the Kinks would all but abandon in their search for the perfect rock opera.
-- John Floyd