Melissa Etheridge – Brave And Crazy (1989)

MelissaEtheridge_BraveCrazy3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Before achieving her big breakthrough with 1993’s Yes I Am album, Kansas-born singer/songwriter Melissa Etheridge released three collections of tracks in a genre now being coined “Heartland Rock,” basically a mixture of Hard Rock/Folk Rock with perhaps a hint of Country and R&B tossed in.

Well, whatever the silly and trendy “genre du jour” moniker being used within the industry at any given time to describe a musical style, Etheridge’s second release, Brave And Crazy, is crammed with no-frills and well-performed melodic songs such as “No Souvenirs,” “You Used to Love to Dance,” “Testify,” “Skin Deep,” “The Angels,” “Let Me Go,” and my favorite, “Royal Station 4/16.”

Overall, the collection contains a pleasant balance of Hard and Soft Rock, with Etheridge’s 12-string acoustic guitar at the forefront in the mix and the emotionally charged lyrics delivered in her raspy, recognizable, and soul-stirring voice, which I adore.

Plus, even this early in Etheridge’s professional career, her songwriting capabilities are already impressive, with most of the tunes on this release being highly memorable, adding to the album’s replay value.

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Heart – Dog & Butterfly (1978)

Heart_DogButterfly4 out of 5 Stars!

I clearly recall the controversy from many fans and critics when Dog & Butterfly came out in ’78, with numerous people considering it too mellow for Heart. Yet I found Dog & Butterfly to be the band’s most accomplished release up to that point, well-produced and often mesmerizing, with a seemingly perfect balance of electric and acoustic tracks, and some of the most beautiful melodies the band ever recorded.

The live “Cook With Fire” leads off the “Dog” side of the album with a mighty wallop, while the catchy “High Time,” the slinky “Hijinx,” and the memorable “Straight On” (the second single released from the album) are as good as anything the band released on its previous records, and in my opinion, any of them could have been released as singles.

From the softer “Butterfly” side, the chorus to the title track (the initial single off the album) is simply and utterly haunting, ringing in my mind for days and days after first hearing it, and it still remains one of my favorite Heart tunes of all time, while “Mistral Wind” is probably one of the finest tracks in the band’s entire catalogue, being a mixture of acoustic Folk Rock and electric Hard Rock, and almost Progressive Rock with its gripping, dramatic fade-out section and Ann Wilson’s siren-like vocals.

Now, I’ll admit, after all these many years, I still feel rather blasé about the middle two tracks on the “Butterfly” side (“Lighter Touch” and “Nada One”)—not that there’s anything wrong with either song, mind you, it’s just that there’s no special “magic” about them either, or at least nothing that “hit” me as magical, nothing too memorable, just fairly basic tunes with decent melodies, decent arrangements, and decent performances.

But regardless of the two “so-so” tunes, Dog & Butterfly still remains one of my favorite Heart releases, and typically when I crave hearing the band, this is the album toward which I most often gravitate. Beautiful work!

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Riff Raff – Riff Raff (1973)

RiffRaff_13.5 out of 5 Stars!

From the U.K., Riff Raff produced two albums (or three, if you count the “archival” album released decades later) of Progressive Rock, mostly with either a folk or jazzy flavor on many of the tracks.

On this particular self-titled debut, in the lighter moments, the band occasionally reminded me of groups such as Strawbs or Mark-Almond when it came to both instrumentation and atmosphere, with beautiful acoustic guitar, flute, sax, and grand piano passages.

And during the heavier sections, the wah-wah guitars, sizzling saxes, keyboard leads, and jazzy tempos almost seem a merging of the bands such as Return To Forever, Baker Gurvitz Army, and Paice Ashton Lord.

Finally, of special note is the appearance here of stellar keyboardist Tommy Eyre, who would eventually go on to join Zzebra and, later, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band.

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America – America (1971)

America_America4 out of 5 Stars!

Sometimes during a really rough day you need gentle, harmonious music to wind down, to drift away from the craziness of the real world, and that’s when I often find the group America a godsend.

Formed in England, of all places, the songwriting trio of Gerry Beckley, Dewey Bunnell, and Dan Peek had indeed an American flavor, seeming to draw at least part of its inspiration from Crosby, Stills, & Nash (or C,S,N & Young), offering up wickedly melodic and uncluttered acoustic-based pop music rich in spot-perfect vocal harmonies—almost like an acoustic version of Three Dog Night.

Anyway, the same as many of my contemporaries, my first experience with America was hearing the singalong track “A Horse With No Name,” being played just about every hour of every day on every AM or FM radio station seemingly between here in Chicago to Timbuktu, and since the tune appealed to me, I picked up the album even before the second hit “I Need You” replaced “Horse” on those hourly radio rotations. Anyway, with tracks such as those, along with the magnificent “Sandman,” “Riverside,” “Here” and a host of other fairly memorable ditties, I ended up playing this album almost as much as the DJs themselves and ended up following the band for many years until Dan Peek left the fold and, well, the magic had disappeared for me.

Nevertheless, this debut as well as several of the band’s subsequent releases are still essential in my music library for when those “crazy days” roll around.

(RIP Dan Peek)

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