LP Review: Lenny Kravitz, ‘Raise Vibration’ – A Hot Mess, But At Least It’s Hot

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“If  we’re right, and we can stop this thing…Lenny…you will have saved the lives of millions of registered voters.” – Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Ghostbusters

I know what you’re thinking. Why post a quote from the movie Ghostbusters when we’re talking about rock and roll here? Well, if you remember correctly that line from Bill Murray’s character, Peter Venkman, comes during a scene when the Ghosbusters are in the Mayor’s office (the Mayor’s name is Lenny). Things are going badly. The Ghostbusters had been in jail prior to being summoned to see the Mayor. The evil spirits and ghosts had all been released and the sky had turned dark, blocking out the sun. There’s a cop in the room who says that a police precinct has walls that are “bleeding.” The Cardinal drops by, and says he thinks it’s all “a sign from God.” Things are looking bleak, “wrath of God, old Testament, cats living with dogs” kind of bad. If Lenny the Mayor will allow the Ghostbusters to go fight these supernatural foes, he may just save the lives of “millions of registered voters.”

Flash forward to the world today. Things are getting pretty bleak out there. I don’t even watch the news anymore and I consider myself pretty “wonky.” The U.S. seems more divided than at any time in history. Democracy itself is on the brink. Half the people are mad at the President, the other half are mad at the half that’s mad at the President. Scary, right-wing, Nationalist parties are winning elections, or doing well, all over Europe. There’s so much anger and hatred toward our fellow men out there, especially immigrants. Enter Lenny…in this case, not the Mayor, but Lenny Kravitz. With this backdrop of oppression, graft and rage, Lenny Kravitz has crafted an album highlighting the things he’s been singing about since his debut, 1989’s Let Love Rule. Namely peace, love, and unity. Lenny lays down a very positive message on his new LP, Raise Vibration. And let’s face it, if his message resonates… he may just save the lives of millions of registered voters… at least I hope there are millions of registered voters who dig Lenny’s message. And I hope they vote.

I’m on record admitting I’m a huge Lenny fan. I’m the second biggest Lenny fan in my house after the Rock Chick. I can’t tell about the cat… he may or may not dig Lenny but that’s how he is about everything, sort of “meh.: As I mentioned in my review of the fabulous first single from this album, “Its Enough,” (Lenny Kravitz: New Single, “It’s Enough,” His Inner City Blues Are A Smooth Groove) similar to my wife’s love of Lenny, it was a girlfriend who turned me onto his first album, the previously mentioned, Let Love Rule. If it weren’t how badly things ended, I’d probably call that ex and thank her for turning me onto Lenny’s music. I don’t want to replay the “girl throws phone” episode of my youth…but I digress. The height of everybody’s Lenny fandom, when you ask them, is typically Are You Gonna Go My Way, probably his masterwork. I stuck around for the dark, groovy little record that followed, Circus. When he released 5, it was such an uneven record, even after he added the single, “American Woman” to deluxe copies of the CD, I got off the bandwagon.

A while ago, the Rock Chick turned me onto his 2014 album, Strut (LP Review: Lenny Kravitz, “Strut” – How’d I Miss This Sexy Album?). I love that sexy, rocking album. That record sent me digging through Lenny’s back catalog and I realized he’d started a bit of a late (or perhaps for Lenny, a middle-) career renaissance. It’s Time For A Love Revolution, while a bit mellow was a strong album. Black and White America is a fabulous record, I almost like it as much as Strut. Needless to say, excitement was running high here at B&V for this year’s Raise Vibration. I’m sad to say though, despite the great energy and the positive message, this album left me a little lost. It’s a bit of a mess…although it’s still sexy enough to call a hot mess. Let’s face it, Kravitz probably makes folding his laundry look sexy. Am I right, ladies?

Lenny Kravitz plays most if not all of the instruments on his records. His long time lead guitar player, cool Afro-sporting dude, Craig Ross typically plays the solos, but other than that it’s all Lenny, except backing vocals or horns. Kravitz was actually the drummer in Slash’s first band when they were in high school. Naturally when you can do so many things well, you’re more willing to try a lot more things. And believe me, there’s a lot that Lenny tries on this record. Many people dismiss Lenny as derivative, and yes, I can spot the influences, but he has a way of making music that reminds you of someone else while still staying completely Lenny.

For me, the emotional center and best track on here remains “It’s Enough.” It reminds me of What’s Goin’ On era Marvin Gaye. It even has a trumpet solo. Gaye did some great protest, social-commentary music on that album, and that palette is the perfect setting for Lenny’s message. Beyond that, there are a lot of highlights here. After staring with a middling, midtempo rocker that left me a little cold, “We Can Get It Together,” (which could be considered the theme here), Lenny takes a left turn into a soulful, sexy groove on “Low.” “Low” may be an act of seduction or a pro-LGBTQ statement, I still can’t tell. Either way it’s a great song. The title track starts with an abrasive guitar riff that brings to mind John Lennon’s “I Found Out,” but Lenny loses me at the end when he tacks on an Indigenous people drum/chants thing. It’s a bit baffling to end a nice rock tune that way. I thought only the Cult did that.

Another highlight is the acoustic “Johnny Cash.” The track is about when Lenny lost his beloved mother, Roxie, and Johnny Cash reached out and consoled him. Which, lets face it, makes me love Johnny Cash even more. So while the song is about Roxie, it’s told through the prism of Johnny Cash’s generosity of spirit. I like “5 More Days Til Summer,” I even put it on my Eclectic Summer Playlist, BourbonAndVinyl Eclectic Summer/Sun/Beach Playlist) on Spotify, but there’s this annoying chorus where a group of high school girls sings “one, two, three, four, five.” Lenny… really? It’s a cheesy moment in a great song. He’s throwing a lot into some of these songs, too much at times. “The Majesty Of Soul” is the great kind of soulful, funky tune Lenny was born to sing.

But along the lines of throwing everything he’s got at this record… Lenny does what amounts to a Prince tribute on the awful, almost electronic “Who Really Are the Monsters?” The song even has a Prince-like guitar solo. I preferred Janelle Monae’s recent record, “Make Me Feel” as a tribute to Prince vs this. Yes, I listen to Janelle Monae, she’s awesome and she’s from Kansas City. “Here To Love” is an overwrought, depressing piano ballad, ending in Lenny holding a note until it sounds like his voice broke. “Gold Dust” is the kind of slinky, funky track that Lenny should leave alone… “Ride” and “I’ll Always Be Inside Your Soul” are alright tracks to end it, but nothing that really grabs me. The album left me feeling very similar to how I felt when I heard 5 for the first time. It’s a bit of an uneven record, with some great tracks on it.

I’m disappointed to say I can’t recommend this album, as a whole. There are certainly songs that you should check out like “Low” or “It’s Enough.” But on the whole this is a slinky, sexy, hot mess. There’s a lot to like on this album, but too much goes wrong. I love that Lenny is out there preaching the gospel of Peace and Love… Ringo can’t do it all by himself.

Cheers and stay positive out there folks… storm clouds have already gathered. Take care of each other and steer toward the light.

 

 

 

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LP Review: Paul McCartney’s ‘Egypt Station’ – All Aboard For The Album Of the Year

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Well, it took all the way to September, but I think finally – spoiler alert! – we have the B&V Album of the year in Paul McCartney’s epic new record Egypt Station. I reserve the right to change my mind should something stunning come out between now and New Year’s Eve… but I highly doubt anything like this will. We have to remember people, when the former Beatle puts an album out, it’s a pretty big fucking deal. McCartney’s late career renaissance continues. I’m still recovering from my Florida trip, but I have to say, this album really grabbed me. I’ve been thinking a lot since seeing Robert Plant on Monday night about artists who have to grapple with past glories but remain creative today (Concert Review: Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters, KC 9/10/18). While Plant has headed off in different directions from Zeppelin, McCartney just continues to hone his gifts and create new melodic pop/rock.

The world was such a different place when the Beatles broke up. The world was devastated and as usual in break ups, everyone was looking for someone to blame. Many blamed Yoko, which is bullshit, we always seem to blame the girlfriend. Since McCartney was the one who announced it, he was widely blamed especially in the rock press. He quietly just released a series of great albums, which at the time were only moderately appreciated by critics, but are now widely lauded. From McCartney, Ram, Band On The Run through the mellow London Town McCartney remained popular with the fans. He was a hit-single machine. No wonder he has so many Greatest Hits packages. You have to wonder if Lennon and McCartney’s rivalry in those days might have been like Hemingway and Fitzgerald – Hemingway always admired Fitzgerald’s writing style and Fitzgerald always envied Hemingway’s sales numbers. I’ll let you guess who is who in that analogy… but I’m off on a tangent.

Things had already started to cool off for McCartney when in 1980 John Lennon was tragically assassinated. I remember walking into a record store in ’82 and the clerk had slipped Tug Of War on the turntable. I wasn’t there to buy that record, but I ended up doing so. That was such a brilliant album, well except for those Stevie Wonder duets. Many of those tracks were directly about John. After that McCartney’s career started to stall. The magic seemed to be gone. He’d have a great song every now and then like “No More Lonely Nights” or “Spies Like Us” but his music became more convoluted and impenetrable. I always wondered if Lennon’s absence unmoored him a bit. They always brought out the best in each other – McCartney sweetened Lennon and Lennon toughened up McCartney. Even though they weren’t working together anymore you wonder if the loss shook McCartney more than even he realized. People play up the feud, but at the heart of that relationship was friendship.

I had written McCartney off in terms of buying his records, but I always kept one eye, or perhaps more correctly, one ear on what he was doing. I even bought Press To Play, which in retrospect was ill advised. There was always an interesting single that would pierce my indifference. Then in 1995-1996 McCartney immersed himself in the wonderful Beatles Anthology series of albums and documentary. By returning to that early music I think he rediscovered the magic of simplicity and melody.

When he re-emerged from the Anthology thing with 1997’s Flaming Pie it was a comeback as seismic as Dylan’s Time Out of Mind comeback.To prep for this I listened to that record again and it’s one of his best ever. Thus began the McCartney renaissance. If you’ve been ignoring him, it’s at your own peril. His late career albums are the type of records this blog is built on. Run Devil Run recorded and released a year after he tragically lost his wife Linda, was a return to the music of McCartney’s youth, namely, old school rock and roll. It was joyful and cathartic. From there he’s been on fire – Driving Rain (a more experimental but great McCartney album), Chaos and Creation (a mellow grower of a record) were both great records. As great as all of those records are, they were each very distinctive, ie, the songs on those albums were all of the same sound. Flaming was built on acoustic guitars. Devil was straight up rock  (kudos to David Gilmour on guitar). Driving Rain was trippy. They each had a coherency and showed off a singular strength of McCartney, of which there are many.

By 2005, I think McCartney decided, to hell with it, I do a lot of things well and I’m going to do it all on each record. His melody writing and penchant for hooks have not diminished over the years. Memory Almost Full was brilliant. It even had a mini-suit of songs toward the end that hark back to side two of Abbey Road. He followed that up with New that saw McCartney stretching out even farther. Ballads, rockers and “Queenie Eye” a song that wouldn’t have been out of place on the “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields” single… If you like the Beatles New is the record for you.

A few months ago on social media I began seeing McCartney posting black and white photos of instruments. A guitar leaning on an amp. Piano keys… Something was afoot. Indeed it was. He has returned after a five year absence with Egypt Station, a record he’s described as a “concept album.” I think that’s a conceit, as the concept is the listener boards a musical train at “Egypt Station” and each song is a stop along the line. It’s an odd concept, but it works in that it allows McCartney to go in any direction his creativity and melodies take him. There are ballads, rockers, even political songs on this album. Despite the variety of the material on the record, it hangs together very well. It was produced by Greg Kurstin who has worked with, gasp, Adele. Don’t let that scare you, this isn’t a mellow record. Kurstin puts a modern sheen on McCartney’s classic style. The record sounds current and yet timeless at the same time.The best moments on this album evoke past glories without wallowing in any nostalgia.

The first single, “Come On To Me” was a great crunchy rocker about sex. It’s catchy as hell. “Who Cares” starts with guitar feedback and deals with haters, “who cares what the idiots say?” “Caesar Rocks” (read that She’s a Rock) is another randy song about sex. For a guy 76 years old, this cat is horny still. We should all be so lucky. The only rocker that left me cold was the vulgar “Fuh You” (read Fuck You). It’s not the vulgarity, hell I cuss all the time, it’s that it’s a great riff and song but the lyric is kinda stupid.

There are great ballads in here as well. “I Don’t Know” starts the record with a beautiful, melancholy piano. It may still be my favorite song on the record (Paul McCartney: Two New Songs From The Upcoming ‘Egypt Station’). McCartney has a reputation as being Mr. Sunshine, but there are sadder elements just under the surface here. “Do It Now” is another sweet, but slightly sad ballad where someone seems to be saying goodbye. “Happy With You” is a stunning acoustic guitar driven song about the joys of domestic bliss. McCartney sings, “I liked to get wasted, but these days I don’t, ’cause I’m happy with you.” Somehow, with a name like BourbonAndVinyl, I can relate to that. The Rock Chick saved my life, but that’s another blog post. “Hand In Hand” is another piano driven track that’s just straight up about love. The one song that also jumped out at me from the mellower end of things was “Confidante.” I don’t know if he’s singing to an ex-lover, John Lennon, or both. It’s a great track. There are so many layers to this music.

I was glad to see McCartney, an old hippy, take up the topic of politics. “People Want Peace” is a big anthem of a track. You wonder if McCartney has been hanging with Ringo, Mr. Peace & Love. It’s a short track but effective. “Dominoes” is another catchy rocker with distorted guitars and nice drums and seems to be a call for unity when he sings, “Soon we’ll see that you and me, we’re really friends.” “Come Together” people… right now! The heart of this record for me, was the brilliant political allegory, “Despite Repeated Warnings,” about a ship being piloted by a crazy captain. The line, “how can we stop him, grab the keys and lock him up,” tells you all you need to know. At almost seven minutes long, it’s pretty epic.

The only track that lost me here was “Back In Brazil.” Even a genius can throw a curve ball at you. The chorus of “Ichi Ban” being repeated over and over made me think somebody should have pushed back on that one… The album ends with an old-style Red Rose Speedway medley, “Hunt You Down/Naked/C-Link.” The “Hunt You Down” portion rocks. “C-Link” is some tasty guitar solo’ing.

Egypt Station finds McCartney in fine voice. His instrument has not diminished at all. I think he plays all the musical instruments too. It’s a sprawling epic McCartney’s been doing since the “White Album,” although, it’s only one guy so that comparison may be hyperbolic on my part. This is a highly recommended album to all fans of The Beatles, Paul McCartney and great rock everywhere. It’s a shame music like this can’t find a place on modern radio…

Enjoy this one, it’s a treasure!

Concert Review: Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters, KC 9/10/18

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*Photo from the internet, credited to The Telegraph and likely copyrighted

“Kansas City, here I come…” Robert Plant, September 10, 2018

The Rock Chick and I had been on the road for a little R & R the last four or five days. We’d been barnstorming around Florida, partying like escaped, pirate convicts. I knew we’d be exhausted by the time we got home on Monday, September 10th, but when I saw Robert Plant was coming in concert at the beautiful, historic Midland Theater, I knew we’d have to suck it up. After a brief but – and I don’t say this word often – lovely opening set from violinist/singer/multi-instrumentalist Seth Lakeman, who joined the Space Shifters for their set, we were all anxiously awaiting the man himself, Robert Plant.

I hadn’t seen Plant solo since the tour in support of Dreamland. I did see him with Alison Krauss when they toured together and it was fabulous. I can’t believe it’d been almost 10 years since I’d seen him. When the lights came down, and the band walked on stage, Plant, looking fit and dressed all in black, hung back in the shadows, near the drum riser. He danced around the stage like a prize fighter before the championship match… I couldn’t take my eyes off of him…with his long hair and full beard he looks like a grizzled lion. The band launched into the opening track, “New World…” from their great album, last year’s Carry Fire LP Review: Robert Plant, The Sensational ‘Carry Fire’ and Plant stepped to the microphone… and he unleashed…the voice. Wow, can he still sing. In the back of my mind I always wondered if he wasn’t getting back with Led Zeppelin because he wouldn’t be able to hit those notes. I was terribly wrong about that. I mean, sure, it’d probably be hard for him to do “The Immigrant Song” at top banshee wail every night (who could?), but his voice is as strong as ever. He could go from a whisper to a Viking wail in one breath. On stage Plant’s charisma is palpable. Not just the voice, the looks on his face, the dancing, the hand gestures, it’s all amazing. He’s truly still one of the best front men, ever. And from all appearances last night, he’s having a blast.

When I see an artist like Plant it gets me thinking. I don’t think rock and roll was ever originally conceived with longevity in mind. When it came along in the middle 50s, built on post-war teen rebellion, I think people thought it was just a fad, and it’d fade away. No one ever imagined that a man who just turned 70 could walk out on stage and still captivate an audience. But therein lies the horns of the dilemma for Plant – how does someone like him balance past glories with the adventure of new creativity. How do you blend your past with your present without being trapped by it. And lets face it, Plant’s past, namely Led Zeppelin, casts a big shadow. I thought Plant and the Space Shifters – Justin Adams and Skin Tyson on guitars, Dave Smith on drums, Seth Lakeman on violin, Billy Fuller on drums, and John Baggott on keyboards – do a great job of blending the old with the new. Plant spends half his set playing Zeppelin tunes, and half on his solo career.

Plant and the band seem to shift back forth, past to present, seamlessly but there are moments where I fear the crowd doesn’t quite make that jump. When Plant would try to speak before songs, like when introducing “Gallows Pole,” which was sped up last night and played like a psychedelic hoe-down, he was explaining it was a Leadbelly song… Some idiot screamed, “We love you Robert!” To his credit, Plant gave a somewhat exhausted, “Yeah, yeah, I know.” During one of the most beautifully sung moments of the night, the band had gone quiet and Plant was softly singing a passage of “Please Read the Letter” (a Page-Plant track that he’d redone with Alison Krauss and he described as a song being written by two “up and coming songwriters,” in his funniest line), some crazy, fucking idiot chick in front of me, screams, “You’re incredible” at the top of her lungs… ruining the moment in the song. The look on Plant’s face was telling… mild frustration, surprise, and a long way from pleased. It’s not 1972, honey. Sober up and let the man sing a ballad. Despite all that, Plant remained charming the entire night. His between song anecdotes were always enjoyable.

At this stage in his career, it’d be easy for Plant to reunite with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones and travel the world singing songs from the seventies. It’s obvious to me that Plant doesn’t care about that fame and fortune thing any more. For him, it appears, the joy is in the discovery and exploration of the roots of all music. He blends folk, rock and roll, Middle-eastern and African rhythms into one big, new whole in his latest music. That’s why I love it. He sees the commonality of a Celtic folk song and something that springs from the Appalachians to something that’s from the bazaars of Morocco. He’s searching and in that search he’s creating some of the most interesting music of his career. The fact that he can deliver that AND old Zeppelin classics over the course of one evening is mind blowing.

As I mentioned, they opened up with “New World…” and carried on playing new tracks, the rocking “Turn It Up” from lullaby…And The Ceaseless Roar proved the night was not going to be a mellow affair. “The May Queen” his first single from Carry Fire was next and it was spot on. One has to give a special shout out to Adams and Tyson on guitars. They go from acoustic to blasting electric as effortlessly as Plant goes from quiet to loud. By song four, Plant had dug into the Zeppelin catalog when they launched into “Black Dog.” What I loved about it, the band and Plant played it perfectly, down to the call and response vocals, until the end where they stretched it out and jammed a little bit more in the style of Carry Fire than Led Zeppelin IV and then brought it right back to sounding like Zeppelin. It was like watching musical gymnastics. I will admit, the band did tend after that to stretch most songs out toward the end and I get it, when a band is grooving they like to jam, but if they’d cut a few of those jams short, they could have fit a few more songs in… I saw in Europe they were opening with “When the Levee Breaks” and were also doing “Rainbow” and I would have enjoyed hearing one or both of those versus the jams, but I’m splitting hairs.

After “Black Dog,” Tyson and Adams huddled on the side of the stage with an acoustic guitar and mandolin, respectively… Plant sang “Going to California” in what was perhaps the most beautiful moment of the night. I don’t mind admitting, I got goose bumps and tears welled in my eyes. I have no idea why I reacted that strongly, the performance just moved me. After that they played the Rock Chick’s favorite “Please Read the Letter” which was only marred by the aforementioned drunk idiot, and then the sped up “Gallows Pole.” It was then that Plant played “Carry Fire” the beautiful, Middle-Eastern flavored title track from his last album. I don’t know how Justin Adams was able to make the sounds he was making – it looked like he was playing a 12-string dobro, but I’m not a instrument genius. It was a real highlight for me.

The moment that brought the house down was the next track, from all the way back on Led Zeppelin I, “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” Skin Tyson sat down and played a beautiful acoustic solo intro that eventually led into the song. It was musically gorgeous. The band muscled into the electric portion of the track and the crowd, including me, went wild. After the exotic “Little Maggie” the band played an old Bukka White song, “Funny In My Mind, (I Think I’m Fixin’ To Die)” from Dreamland. While I love the song, they sped it up and played it almost in a Johnny Cash train-song style that lost me a bit. It went on for a long time.

The encore was a complete surprise and delight when they came out and played “In The Mood” from 1982. Plant typically eschews music from his first few albums so I was delighted they played one of the Rock Chick’s favs at the show. It was played more in the Plant-Krauss style, all natural instruments, piano/violin/great vocals, than the original synth version. It was smile-inducing pleasure. With that, it was time for the big jam – “Bring It On Home” which led to “Whole Lotta Love.” There was a weird interlude where they sang some song about heading down to the Gulf of Mexico… and then it was back to “Whole Lotta Love.” The crowd, who had been ready to release their Zeppelin mania in a guitar frenzy orgasm, seemed satisfied at last.

We were spent, but the Rock Chick looked up at me and said, “I’m tired, but that was awesome…” Plant waved to the crowd and said, “Remember what you heard tonight… see you next time, at least I hope so….” And right before left, he turned back and quoting the same song he’d quoted at the beginning of the night said, “Kansas City, here I go…” And with that the Legend, Robert Plant and his band left the stage.

I say this all the time, buy the ticket, see the show, folks. It was an enthralling evening of rock and roll. These artists are treasures and they ain’t gonna be around forever. I believe Plant when he says, “I carry fire for you, here in my naked hand…” He’s carrying the fire of rock and roll.