Old favourites release new music in 2020 – Part 2

Following on from Part 1, here’s the second set of new 2020 releases from singers/bands whose songs or albums I’ve previously enjoyed.

My Morning JacketThe Waterfall II (10th Jul): Two of my favourite albums from Part 1 were from one-man-band projects Tame Impala and Of Montreal. My Morning Jacket is another one of those, built around the musical vision of Jim James. This latest release, their eighth, was created from outtakes of their 2015 effort The Waterfall. It contains a number of chilled out, easy listening tracks; very different from the high-energy, strikingly distinctive compositions that I fell in love with on their breakout albums, Z (2005) and Evil Urges (2008). In fact, I was a bit underwhelmed the first time around but after listen to the album a second time, I got into its groove; tracks like Spinning My Wheels, Feel You, Run It and The First Time are perfect for a lazy Sunday morning, with the steel guitar on Feel You absolutely magical, like driving down an empty country road with the wind in your hair. Wasted is the only song on the album that picks up the tempo, with the second half of the 6-minute song featuring some of the heavier guitar grooves that has characterized their earlier work. Overall, this is a lighter entry in their oeuvre, but enjoyable in its own way.

Kansas The Absence of Presence (17th Jul): Although Kansas were considered to be one of the standard bearers of the 70’s prog rock movement, surprisingly all I know about their music is their 1976 mega-hit Carry On Wayward Son. But I figured I’d give their 16th studio album a shot. Founding member and vocalist Steve Walsh retired a few years ago, but two other founding members, guitarist Rich Williams and drummer Phil Ehart (both 70 years old) are still around. The album opens with the epic 8-minute title track, which contains some fantastic musical interludes, anchored by new keyboardist Tom Breslin; very reminiscent of the classic 70’s prog rock sound. And so it continued through the album – Throwing Mountains, Jets Overhead, Animals on the Roof, Never, all mixing a contemporary commercial rock sensibility with some delicious guitar licks and keyboard passages that are a throwback to a bygone rock era. This is definitely an album I’m coming back to, and will most likely lead me to explore more of the band’s back catalogue.

Alanis MorisetteSuch Pretty Forks in the Road (31st Jul): It was only when I watched an interview on CNN a few months ago, that I realized it was the 25th anniversary of Alanis Morisette’s breakout (third) album, Jagged Little Pill. Naturally, much has changed in her life and her music since then and it would be unfair to expect the same angst of that earlier time. In fact, I loved the introspection and inner beauty  that shone through in her 2008 release Flavors of Entanglement. This latest release signals the continued mellowing of Alanis; it breaks no new ground musically and in fact some of the songs are rather awkwardly arranged. Other than the opening track Smiling and the upbeat Sandbox Love, there were no other tracks in this 46-minute collection that held my attention.

Deep PurpleWhoosh! (7th Aug): What a surprise it was to learn that the ageing rockers are still going strong. Their 21st studio album in 52 years was surprisingly good…yes just take a few moments to absorb those numbers. Two songs, We’re All the Same in the Dark and The Long Way Round really dial back the years to the Mark II line-up of the 80’s (Perfect Strangers and The House of Blue Light), the phase that is my personal favourite. Veteran keyboardist Don Airey previously worked with Rainbow and Ozzy Osbourne before taking over from founding member Jon Lord in 2002, and is in full flow on Nothing at All. The Power of the Moon showcases some of the eastern rhythms that the band has been so successful at incorporating into their past hits. Man Alive has some intriguing lyrics and is another fantastic song from the album. Of course, ever since Ritchie Blackmore left the group, once can’t expect those catchy guitar riffs that were such an enjoyable feature of their greatest songs, but Ian Gillan’s distinctive vocals continue to provide the anchor of nostalgia and reassurance to their music. Likewise, veteran band members Roger Glover (bass) and Ian Paice (drums) are still at the top of their game even though they are in their 70’s. Some reviewers gently poked fun at the band for producing an “over the top” album; on the contrary, I think we should be grateful that the band has the hunger, energy and creativity to continue delivering music of this calibre so late in their career. I’ve listened to the album several times now and like a good whisky, it seems to reveal new and surprising notes each time!

The Allman Betts BandBless Your Heart (28th Aug): This is the only band in the list that I’m listening to for the first time. But as it was formed by the sons of Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts and Berry Oakley, three of the founding members of The Allman Brothers Band, I figured it qualified as a previously known artist! And indeed, when that slide guitar kicks in on the opening track Pale Horse Rider, it was a comforting feeling that took me back to my favourite Allman Bros. tracks. But thereafter, the album was a bit of a disappointment. There is a 12-minute long instrumental, Savannah’s Dream which opens with promise and but ultimately feels a bit safe and doesn’t deliver the pyrotechnics that one would expect on a track of this length. And I think that’s a good description for the entire album. In spite of its length (71 minutes), it feels familiar and repetitive, without producing any of the pleasant surprises that one looks for in a memorable album. Magnolia Road is a welcome exception with a great section involving the slide and keyboards, and an overall sound that reminded me of The Allman Brothers’ Florida counterparts Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Sufjan StevensThe Ascension (25th Sep): Ever since Stevens’ seminal Illinois concept album, I have been desperate to fall in love with his subsequent efforts. With the exception of Visions of Gideon, the song that he wrote for the film Call Me By Your Name, my wait continues. I think I’m unable to change my expectations and keep looking for the same virtuosity and creativity that shone through on Illinois. In spite of high scores from critics (80 on Metacritic) nothing on this release jumps out as exceptional. It’s the sort of album I could play in the background while reading a book, knowing the music will not distract me, because I’m not really listening to it.

Blitzen TrapperHoly Smokes Future Jokes (25th Sep): The Portland, Oregon indie folk-rock band’s 10th album is a short one by today’s standards, running to just 37 minutes. The title track from their critically acclaimed 2007 album Wild Mountain Nation was on heavy rotation on my iPod once upon a time and I had listened off-and-on to their follow up album Furr from 2008. This new album contains more of their mellow easy-listening folk-rock sound (sometimes also categorized as alternative country). It’s not an album you listen to for catchy guitar hooks or virtuoso instrumental work. Instead a well-integrated package of vocals and soft guitar sounds. The best examples are Bardo’s Light, Don’t Let Me Run and the contemplative Sons and Unwed Mothers. The title track is the sort of free-flowing, easy-listening song you’d play on a long road trip, very reminiscent of Tom Petty. A couple of songs incorporate the saxophone (played by Ben Latimer), which is not an instrument one expects to hear on a folk-rock album, but it works really well.

Bon Jovi2020 (2nd Oct): I haven’t listened to a Bon Jovi album in full since 1992’s Keep The Faith, and the last hit single I can recall is It’s My Life from the 2000 album Crush, so I was curious to see how their sound has changed on their 15th studio album. Jon Bon Jovi sings at a lower register now, lead guitarist Richie Sambora left three albums ago and gone are the rock anthems. Instead, there are a number of quieter, more contemplative songs and these are the ones that worked for me – American Reckoning, Story of Love, Let It Rain and Unbroken.

Blue Öyster CultThe Symbol Remains (9th Oct): This is the veteran band’s 15th studio album, appearing nearly 50 years after their self-titled debut release. Their previous album, released 19 years ago, was received poorly and appeared to be the death knell for the band, so it’s a pleasant and unexpected surprise to see new material from them, especially with some of the tracks sounding as good as the material from their peak years in the 70’s, including Buck Dharma’s distinctive vocal style. I would characterize this as generic hard rock, the sort of music you would really enjoying while sitting in a bar with a drink. The are quite a few good tracks on this hour-long album, including Box in My Head, Edge of the World, Florida Man and Secret Road (with some great guitar solos).

From this set of nine albums, my favourites are the ones by My Morning Jacket, Kansas and Deep Purple. The ones from Ozzy Osbourne, Blitzen Trapper, Bon Jovi and Blue Öyster Cult carry a couple of strong tracks each and are good enough for a casual listen from time to time. This has been a great experience and I’m now looking forward to the November and December releases.

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