Friday, May 31, 2024

Rick Estrin & The Nightcats - The Hits Keep Coming

They kid on a bit, do Rick Estrin & The Nightcats. The cover of The Hits Keep Coming has the quartet striking a larky pose, putting up their dukes in boxing fashion.  And opening track ‘Somewhere Else’ underlines that light-hearted image, bringing together Estrin’s gritty harp, a tasty bass groove from Jerry Jemmott, and Kid Andersen’s steely, rock’n’rolling guitar in a funky, amusing “kiss off” song – as in “Good luck somewhere else”.
There’s more in an upbeat vein as the album progresses, with the likes of the Muddy Waters tune ‘Diamonds At Your Feet’ and ‘911’. The former is a bit of old-fashioned sounding fun, with
Rick Estrin & The Nightcats - more than just a barrel of laughs
Pic by Steve Jennings
skipping drums, tootling harp, and gospel undertones, while the latter is a rock’n’rollin’, swinging hoot about a sexy woman inducing a medical emergency, with zippy harp and guitar solos from Estrin and Andersen.
But there’s a dark side lurking behind the musical bonhomie.  The bopping and bouncing ‘The Circus Is Still In Town (The Monkey Song)' may sound exactly like its title suggests, right down to some fairground-like organ from Lorenzo Farrell, but the lyric is a subtle lament about addiction.
This more downbeat tone extends across the title track, on which Estrin bemoans “one more messed up year” against a warped and swampy backdrop, reinforced by the dark backing vocals served up by The Sons Of Soul Revivers, and the intriguing folkish blues of Leonard Cohen’s bleak ‘Everybody Knows’, which the Revivers embellish with some doo-woppish harmonies. Truth to tell, Estrin’s voice is now better suited to these contemplative outings than to fun and games, having become rather more shaky and querulous since the last Nightcats album to cross my path, 2017’s Groovin’ In Greaseland.
His now wavering tone works well, too, on the woozy blues of ‘I Ain’t Worried About Nothin’’, catching the undercurrent of doubt from a character trying to convince himself he's not lonely. And if his semi-spoken delivery on ‘Time For Me To Go’ at first seems to be painting a picture of closing time in his local bar, the sense that it’s a reflection on impending mortality becomes more stark as he observes wearily that “most of the folks I used to know, split the scene a while ago”.
There’s tongue in cheek humour in the closing ‘Whatever Happened To Dobie Strange’ though – Dobie Strange being a former Nightcats drummer from yesteryear. It’s a slinky, funky groove with offbeat, bumping bass, and a wah-wah solo from Andersen, while Estrin’s semi-spoken vocal recounts in droll style, some of the dumb or predictable things that fans have said to him over the years. Did someone really imagine, I wonder, that he was actually former Nightcats band leader Little Charlie Baty, and had changed his name?
So yeah, Rick and the boys can produce some hip-shaking and some laughs.  Now and then it can feel a bit lightweight, and the mood may be more persuasive than melodies at times. But still, The Hits Keep Coming is deeper than it might seem at first listen. In the best moments here Estrin & The Nightcats convey the sense of becoming aware, out of the corner of your eye, of the lengthening shadows.  Makes ya think.
The Hits Keep Coming is out now on Alligator Records.

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Quickies - Gun, and FM

You could call this a Rock of Ages reunion of Quickies reviews, since both Gun and FM go back more than a few years, to my hard rock following twenties.  Yet here they are again, many moons later, both serving up new albums for consideration.
Gun – Hombres
When Gun burst onto the scene in 1989 with their debut album Taking On The World, then followed up with Gallus, they sounded fresh and convincing, and had a clear identity of their own. Success didn’t last back then of course, but they’ve been back for a while now, and with Hombres they show that they’re still capable of sounding fresh.
Opening track ‘All Fired Up’ is typical hard charging Gun riffing, with thumping drums from Paul McManus and some twirling guitar garnish on the side. It may not be wildly original, but it’s
Gun - All fired up and stuck in a lift
delivered with conviction, and sonically has a modern sheen to it. And that’s pretty much the template for what follows.
‘Boys Don’t Cry’ may have a grinding rhythm and jagged riff, but those elements are complemented by a melodic chorus with a pleasing hook, and some airy harmonies.  Then ‘Take Me Back Home’ leaps into headbanging hard rock territory, but adds a coat of gloss and a Lizzy-like guitar interlude – plus a weird effect that sounds like the roar of a velociraptor.
So it continues with the mid-paced stomp of ‘Fake Life’, spritzed up with a bucket of melodic rock leanings.  ‘You Are What I Need’ brings and air of romance, with its swaying backing and higher-pitched vocal from Dante Gizzi, leading to a singalong chorus.  And ‘Never Enough’ may have a stuttering riff and rasping vocal, but again the end result is gleaming and catchy rather than roughcast, with a screaming guitar solo downshifting into a melodic bridge.
There’s also a sense on the closing pair of tracks, ‘Lucky Guy’ and ‘Shift In Time’, that the Gunners are allowing some space for broader influences to get in the game.  ‘Lucky Guy’ throbs into life with guttural bass from Andy Carr and a simple kick drum beat, blended with a drawling vocal and shimmering backing vocals, then it explodes into life and jabs away like a boxer as it reaches for a chorus reminiscent of Bryan Ferry’s take on ‘The Price Of Love’, topped off with a siren-like guitar solo. Then ‘Shift In Time’ deploys acoustic guitar to back a melody with a Fab Four ‘A Day In The Life’ vibe. It expands into anthemic mode, spiced up with what some synth-like twiddling, on the way to a swaying, singalong chorus enhanced by soaring female backing vocals, and a piercing guitar solo of a Brian May tonal quality.
Gun are just as direct as in their original incarnation, but seem to have developed an extra layer of subtlety, finding a few extra ingredients in the back of the cupboard to liven things up. It’s good to have them back, and in fine fettle.
Hombres is out now on Cooking Vinyl.
FM – Old Habits Die Hard
Weirdly, I have no recollection of FM’s early days, even though their launch in 1984 was right in the middle of my Sounds-reading, hard-rock-listening early twenties. None. I have no explanation for this.
Listening to tracks such as ‘Don’t Need Another Heartache’ this seems like a shame. Pitched somewhere between Foreigner and Bad Company, it comes with bubbling keys, gutsy chords,
FM - Steve Overland fails to read 'shades' memo
Pic by Paul Stuart Hollingsworth
guitar harmonies, and a general air of blues rock grit. ‘No Easy Way Out’ also impresses, with more echoes of Foreigner in the intro, a good hook and soaring harmonies.
The quasi-epic ‘Black Water’ adds some drama to the mix, a slowish tune with an atmospheric undercurrent of dappled keys from Jem Davis, melodic bass and shimmering guitar, leading to a chorus with a bit of punch, and a squealing guitar solo from the hands of Jim Kirkpatrick. And later on ‘Leap Of Faith’ has satisfying heft in the form of its somersaulting, tumbling riff, making it rock as well as roll.
Then again, opening track ‘Out Of The Blues’ is a song where the whole is, for my tastes, a bit less than the sum of its parts. Sure, there’s an interesting African-type rhythm thing going on over the steady beat, Merv Goldsworthy’s bass rumbles away pleasingly, and there are some neat, tasteful guitar licks and soloing. Too neat really – the overall result is very AOR, á la Toto, or late period Doobie Brothers, and that’s too smooth for me. ‘Whatever It Takes’ is similarly a bit too slick and shiny.  Meanwhile ‘Cut Me Loose’ may sound like it’s been cut from Mike & The Mechanics cloth, but curiously enough it works rather better.
‘California’ is bright and engaging, as sunny and driving-with-the-top-down as its title suggests, and with a couple of zinging guitar solos to boot.  ‘Another Day In My World’ is edgier, and with its rhythmic quirks and driving guitar, plus Davis’ squirreling keys, it too hits the target.  Then to close there’s ‘Blue Sky Mind’, on which a strong melody is given the right kind of glossy but propulsive treatment, the guitar work elegantly ear-catching.
FM have obviously got the musical and songwriting chops. To really be my cup of char though, they could do with a bit more spit and a bit less polish.
Old Habits Die Hard is out now on Frontiers Records, and can be ordered here.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

His Lordship - Cabaret Voltaire, Edinburgh, 17 May 2024

I’ll make this quick, just like this breakneck one hour set delivered – that’s “delivered” like a hail of bullets – by His Lordship.
What these guys assault you with is a tornado of punk-ish rock’n’roll, right the way from the machine gun rat-a-tat of opener ‘I Live In The City’ to the suitably scorching encore ‘Red Hot’, a turbo-charged cover from 1955 that its originator Billy ‘The Kid’ Emerson would surely struggle to
James Walbourne - pinball wizard
Pic by Stuart Stott
 recognise as it whizzes by in blur.
Sure, they dial it down a tad here and there.  ‘The Way I Walk’ is a lurching grind, on which James Walbourne delivers a lip-curling Elvis-like vocal and a dentist drill guitar solo.  And ‘The Repenter’ is like a warped, creepy 60s rock’n’roll ballad, replete with swooping backing vocals from drummer Kristoffer Sonne and touring bassist Dave Page.  But for the most part they go for your throat in full throttle mode.
‘All Cranked Up’ may give a cursory nod to the Stranglers’ ‘Go Buddy Go’, but only as it pays demented homage to Chuck Berry, without whom Buddy would’ve been going precisely nowhere.  ‘Jackie Works For The NHS’ is a crunking garage rock “fuck you to the Tories”, as Walbourne puts it, with reverb-laden vocals, a screeching guitar line, and a Clash-like bass line from Page.  Meanwhile ‘Buzzkill’ sounds like it’s mashing up M’s one hit wonder ‘Pop Muzik’ with the squeaking guitar riff from The Vapors’ ‘Turning Japanese’.
Walbourne and Sonne clearly know their rock'n'roll history, and echoes like these put me in mind of lines from the glorious self-titled glam’n’garage rock
Kristoffer Sonne whips it good
Pic by Stuart Stott
homage by Boston's The Peppermint Kicks  – “I write the songs that try to please you / Something stolen, something borrowed”.
These guys know that showmanship doesn’t require pyrotechnics, not least when Sonne steps out from behind the drums (Page deputising) to take the lead vocal on ‘My Brother Is An Only Child’ in send-for-a-straitjacket fashion, climbing on the bass drum, whirling the mic like a helicopter blade, and generally coming over like a certifiable character from the League of Gentlemen.  And Walbourne is a whirling, pinballing presence throughout, his stylish coiffeur soon becoming matted with sweat.
They do a couple of new tunes.  The slowish instrumental ‘Farewell Paddy’ is a tribute to Shane MacGowan, full of lyrical, bendy guitar.  The following ‘Be A Winner’ is more typical fare, jerky and spiky and propelled by a weightily fuzzy bass line from Page.
The hurtling, irresistible ‘Joy Boy’ is another highlight, with its quirky falsetto chorus and a howling, teeth-gritted solo from Walbourne.  But if that seems hectic, it has serious  competition from the galloping instrumental ‘Cat Call’, a slice of manic guitar frenzy into which Walbourne slips a snatch of Edwyn Collins’ ‘A Girl Like You’ just for extra fun.
As a celebration of rowdy, intense, off the handle wreck’n’roll, an hour in the company of His Lordship is a red hot proposition.  Don’t miss ‘em.
His Lordship are on tour until 30 May, details here.