Mr. Mister – Pull (2010)

MrMr_Pull4 out of 5 Stars!

Back in 1985, it seemed I couldn’t go a few days (even a few hours) without hearing music being played on the radio by Mr. Mister, the AOR/Pop Rock band that had just released its catchy sophomore album called Welcome to the Real World, which contained the wonderfully addicting tunes “Kyrie,” “Is It Love,” and “Broken Wings,” along with a host of other potential hits. Not only did the band include creative musicians and songwriters, but seemed destined for a long and lucrative career.

But when the band released its more innovative and somewhat-progressive third album, Go On, things suddenly went awry. Since the record label’s “mega hit machine” had stopped churning out instant Top Ten singles, RCA Victor was not happy, and amidst the fallout, the band lost its original guitarist, Steve Farris. And to make matters even worse, the group (with numerous guest guitarists, including Yes’s Trevor Rabin) recorded material for a fourth album planned for release around 1989/1990, with even more experimental AOR-oriented material included, and the record company executives (ie. royal and blundering noodleheads) decided to shelve the collection of tunes since it “wasn’t pop enough.” Morons!

Regardless, Mr. Mister’s remaining musicians—drummer Pat Mastelotto, keyboardist Steve George, and bassist/vocalist Richard Page—ended up disbanding in frustration when other labels also refused to accept the material.

Therefore, the eleven-song collection named Pull is an “archival” album that finally saw the light of day twenty years after its original creation. And yes, the album as a whole is indeed more experimental than 1985’s best-selling Welcome to the Real World, but it’s also a top-quality release, with intriguing melodies, lush instrumentation and harmonies, and Richard Page’s warm, pitch-perfect, and instantly recognizable voice front and center. Okay, so tracks such as “Close Your Eyes,” “Learning to Crawl,” “I Don’t Know Why,” “No Words to Say,” “Waiting in My Dreams,” and “We Belong to No One,” might not be instantaneous hit-single material, but the collection of tunes makes for an often-riveting AOR album, beautiful Pop Rock melodies with Prog-Rock leanings when it comes to song arrangements and keyboard instrumentation. Although the overall sound still has Mr. Mister’s undeniable stamp on it, the style is also not too far afield from the material artists such as Toto were recording in the late-’80s/early-’90s, and it’s occasionally similar in scope/style to Page’s 3rd Matinee project, the material he recorded with keyboardist Pat Leonard (Trillion/Toy Matinee) for the 1994 album Meanwhile.

So, although a previously “shelved” album might be considered by some people as being made up of “undeserving/poorly produced/low-quality material,” that is so far from the truth in the case of this particular album. In fact, many of the tunes on Pull are what I would deem as some of Mr. Mister’s best work, and any fan of the original group looking to hear this ultra-professional band delving into more adventurous sonic territory may enjoy this “archival” gem as much as I do.

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Fleetwood Mac – Mystery to Me (1973)

FleetwoodMac_MysteryToMe3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Prior to achieving worldwide superstardom, Fleetwood Mac had churned out music for years and years, first creating some fine albums in the (originally) Blues Rock genre with spectacular guitarist Peter Green at the helm, then (during its second phase) releasing a handful of additional albums that contained a more commercial, laid-back sound with only a hint of Blues Rock. This often-forgotten second phase of the group saw guitarist/vocalist Bob Welch and the ultra-talented keyboardist/vocalist Christine McVie (gosh, I adore this woman!) joining up for the ride.

But despite the two new members bringing with them their advanced songwriting skills, and the group’s relatively stable line-up during this period, Fleetwood Mac still couldn’t quite generate mega-stardom status. That wouldn’t happen until Welch left the group and the Lindsey Buckingham/Stevie Nicks team came aboard for the band’s third “heavily soap-opera drama” phase.

Regardless, I always enjoyed Fleetwood Mac’s second phase, and still listen to those five 1971-1974 albums on a semi-regular basis, especially this particular platter. On Mystery to Me, the band included more than a handful of its finest, most memorable songs from this era, including Welch’s “Somebody,” “Emerald Eyes,” “The City,” and “Hypnotized,” and a decent cover version of the classic Yardbirds’ track “For Your Love.” But for me, McVie’s songs are typically the special ones, and in this case, her compositions such as “Just Crazy Love,” “Why,” “The Way I Feel,” and “Believe Me,” though perhaps not as brilliant as her future endeavors, still sounded as if they could have easily appeared on any of the classic albums during the Buckingham/Nicks years.

Meanwhile, Bob Welch and Christine McVie’s instrumental and vocal skills are in tip-top shape, while John McVie and Mick Fleetwood prove once again to be a “wonderfully tight though nothing-too-fancy” rhythm team. And Bob Weston, his contributions to the band often underappreciated or dismissed, plays some surprisingly tasty lead guitar throughout, especially his subtle riffing on the bluesier “Somebody,” the slide guitar intro on “Why,” or on the harder-rocking “The City” and “Miles Away.” Additionally, with the now-legendary Martin Birch (Deep Purple/Wishbone Ash/Jeff Beck/Faces/etc.) now handling production duties instead of just engineering like he did on the band’s previous three albums, the sound here is rich and full, probably one of Fleetwood Mac’s best and most consistent during this period.

By the way, I continually roll my eyes in amazement and chuckle when I hear or read comments by supposed music-lovers who still seemingly have no clue that Fleetwood Mac even existed before the appearance of Stevie Nicks. What a shame for them, since Fleetwood Mac delivered a stream of enjoyable and catchy, diverse and often-imaginative music prior to 1975, especially on Mystery to Me.

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Puzzle – Puzzle (1973)

Puzzle_14 out of 5 Stars!

Is there anyone besides me who remembers this group? When hunting through my album collection not long ago, I yanked out the two platters by an extremely obscure band from Chi-town named Puzzle.

I hadn’t heard these albums for decades, yet the moment I reviewed the song titles listed on the back covers, snippets of “tune memories” immediately raced through my mind and I itched to revisit these collections again.

Despite the band including a horn section, a rarity in and of itself, Puzzle truly offered nothing revolutionary in the Jazz-Rock/Jazz Fusion world. Indeed, the band sounded remarkably like Chicago, even featuring a lead singer (the band’s drummer) with a voice similar to Robert Lamm’s. Although since Puzzle did not include a trombonist, but two trumpeters and a sax player, the brass section is thinner—not as round or as full without the trombone—setting it apart from Chicago’s signature brass sound. Plus, groups such as Chicago, Ides of March, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Chase had already been around for several years before Puzzle popped onto the scene, so again, the band offered nothing truly unique.

Still, the band had potential, and on its debut album, produced catchy, well-arranged material featuring wailing brass such as “On With the Show,” “You Make Me Happy,” “It’s Not the Last Time,” “Brand New World,” “Lady,” “Suite Delirium,” and the intriguing instrumental “The Grosso.”

Personally, I prefer Puzzle’s self-titled debut since the sophomore effort (boringly christened The Second Album) had a lesser emphasis on the brass instruments, yet Jazz-Rock lovers (especially those who enjoyed Chicago’s earliest albums and songs in the style of “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is,” “Saturday in the Park,” or “Beginnings”) will likely find some satisfying material on either platter (both of which appeared, oddly enough, on the Motown label).

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Zen Carnival – Lucid Dreamer (2015)

ZenCarnival_LucidDreamer3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Lucid Dreamer, the third and latest album from Zen Carnival, contains touches of various Prog-Rock sub-categories such as Avant-Prog and Jazz-Fusion along with Neo-Prog and Symphonic Prog, yet with also a healthy dose of straight-up AOR and Pop Rock when it comes to several vocal melody lines, such as the catchy closing track, “Love is the New Way.”

Overall, the music on Lucid Dreamer, which incorporates a pleasant variety of keyboards (including Mellotron), both aggressive/mellow and electric/acoustic guitars, plus mostly upbeat and often-punchy rhythms, occasionally reminds me of the more poppier side of groups such as Camel and Caravan with some quirkier instrumentation (as on “Medieval Suite,” for example) that would seem right at home on albums by Gentle Giant or Spock’s Beard.

A fun album from a promising group!

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The Guess Who – Wheatfield Soul (1968)

GuessWho_WheatfieldSoul3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Wheatfield Soul was the first album in The Guess Who’s vast catalogue that truly indicated how strongly this mainly Pop Rock band desired—or rather, aurally ACHED—to burst into the Hard Rock arena.

Sure, the album contains the “sweet” mega-classic/orchestrated hit “These Eyes” and other “radio-friendly and tame” pop-rock ditties (“A Wednesday in Your Garden”, etc.) but it also includes blatant hints as to what was to come the following year with the release of the album Canned Wheat…the heavy fuzz guitar solo on “I Found Her in a Star” and the lengthy, funky, and lyrically caustic “Friends of Mine,” for example.

Overall, the sardonically blistering (yet still relatively tamed) vocals of Burton Cummings on most tracks were another clear testament to the savage band being held in rebellious captivity by a rapaciously greedy record industry seeking nothing but “delicate hits.”

Nevertheless, this is a classic album…with the promise of forthcoming slamming hard-rocking grandeur.

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Steely Dan – Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)

SteelyDan_Ecstasy4.5 out of 5 Stars!

After its impressive debut from the previous year, Steely Dan followed up with the excellent Countdown to Ecstasy, proving this was no “average band.”

And here, with Steely Dan still being an actual band (instead of the Donald Fagen/Walter Becker songwriting duo that used mostly studio musicians to create its future albums), the sound is wonderfully cohesive and creative, with the sardonic lyrics and lead vocals (now performed exclusively by Donald Fagan, unlike the previous release) as quirky as ever, the musicianship brilliant, and the sound being a seemingly perfect blend of AOR/Hard Rock/Jazz-Rock with highly memorable melodies and riffs.

I especially loved the dual guitars of Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, who also graced the album with some pedal steel guitar, as well as the impactful inclusion of guest stars such as the acclaimed Victor Feldman playing marimba/vibraphone, Rick Derringer offering up some sleazy slide guitar, and Ernie Watts, Bill Perkins, and Lanny Morgan delivering slick and sassy saxophones, which all added to the band’s sophisticated style.

From “Bodhisattva” to “Your Gold Teeth,” to “My Old School” and “The Boston Rag,” to “Show Biz Kids” and “King of the World,” to “Razor Boy” and “Pearl of the Quarter,” every single track ranks among my favorites within Steely Dan’s entire catalogue—indeed, I adore Countdown to Ecstasy from beginning to end, unlike the band’s subsequent albums—and I’ve never grown tired of hearing it, even forty-five years after snatching it up at the impressionable age of thirteen.

Besides, it was also the first album I owned that had the naughty “F-word” popping up in the lyrics of “Show Biz Kids,” so how could I not have fond memories of this platter, right?

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Alannah Myles – Black Velvet (2007)

AlannahMyles_BlackVelvet2 out of 5 Stars!

Being a die-hard fans of Alannah Myles’s first four albums, I had been looking forward to hearing this “comeback” release after her ten-year absence. Unfortunately, although a few of the tracks contain some decent melodies, and Alannah’s voice is still in fine shape, the modernized production simply ruins most of the songs.

Indeed, the horribly overproduced remake of “Black Velvet” is nowhere near as engaging or as moody as the original version on Alannah’s splendid debut, and not even close to being rock ‘n’ roll, but pure Pop. In the ’90s, Alannah’s albums contained some decent Hard Rock with AOR mixed in, with a touch of Blues and Country Rock as additional spices. Now, however, it sounds as if some “brainiac” got it into their head that Alannah should reinvent herself as a Pop diva, and to tell the truth, I believe the music world has already suffered more than enough with generic dime-a-dozen singers such as Katy Perry or Britney Spears or whoever is the Pop diva of the moment, with all the electronic percussion, computerized musicianship, and overproduced synth Pop/Dance crap. Seriously, the song “Trouble” (at its core) is certainly reminiscent of some of Alannah’s former “blues-based” Hard Rock—such as the track “Rocking Horse” from her second album—but here, the studio filters on her vocals, and the overall electronic sound effects of crickets and white noise overlaying the instrumentation truly decimate the bluegrass-inspired song. What the heck was the producer of this mess thinking?

Therefore I ask, where is the “Hard Rock band” sound that Alannah’s previous albums possessed? Long gone and certainly not present on this album, that’s for sure. If I wanted to listen to some god-awful stylized Pop music by whichever diva is reigning over the Pop charts nowadays, I would have purchased one of their albums. As I said, Alannah obviously still has the vocal prowess—the only reason I grudgingly gave the album 2 Stars—but the horribly cold and calculating, modernized and sinfully sterile Pop ambience destroys any semblance of entertainment. A crying shame.

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Bryan Ferry – In Your Mind (1977)

BryanFerry_InYourMind4 out of 5 Stars!

No one can deny that vocalist Bryan Ferry has a style and sound all his own. Being a fan of his performances during the Roxy Music years, Bryan’s unique vocals and songwriting always held me in thrall, so I was naturally drawn to his solo efforts.

Unfortunately, since he had a fondness for reworking old “classics,” his early solo albums featured few original compositions (or included only some revamps of early Roxy songs), and since his songwriting/lyrics were exceptional with Roxy Music, I therefore felt slight disappointment.

But once Roxy Music started to fade and Ferry found himself without a working band to record his newest Art Rock/Art Pop songs, his solo albums eventually reflected this shift in focus from “covers” to “originals.” So In Your Mind, the first album of Ferry’s all-original compositions—his fourth solo album overall—was in many respects another Roxy Music album, with numerous tunes sounding as if they could have easily fit somewhere on Siren, for example, and several of his former Roxy cohorts (guitarist Phil Manzanera, drummer Paul Thompson, and bassist John Wetton) making guest appearances.

True, in my eyes, nothing Ferry created on his own could ever come close to topping or at least matching Roxy Music masterpieces (For Your Pleasure, Stranded, etc.), but since the band was technically on “hiatus” during the recording of this album, In Your Mind was the closest one could get to enjoying more Roxy-styled material, even though it’s not quite as cohesive or as “genius.” And although more straightforward and possessing a less “arty” flavor than Roxy Music, In Your Mind nevertheless included several gems such as “This Is Tomorrow,” “Tokyo Joe,” “Party Doll,” “Love Me Madly Again,” and the title track, therefore, it remains my favorite of Ferry’s solo efforts and actually rates higher in my opinion that any of the material Roxy Music released once it reformed for the Manifesto album.

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The Pointer Sisters – The Pointer Sisters (1973)

PointerSisters_14.5 out of 5 Stars!

I’m sure many folks like myself who were “music conscious” from the early ’70s and into the ’80s likely couldn’t go more than a day or two without hearing music on the radio created by these talented gals. I, however, being more into Hard Rock, Heavy Metal, and Progressive Rock during my teen years in the ’70s, didn’t pay much attention, though. Sure, I’d heard the act’s first single “Yes We Can Can” and admired the amazing vocal prowess of the four sisters, but it wasn’t until many years later at a party when someone slipped on an album called Priority and I heard the girls performing an energetic version of Ian Hunter’s “Who Do You Love?” when I decided to investigate the group’s back catalogue.

One thing that struck me when initially hearing this debut album is the wide variety of material on display. In the early days of the group, the singers (dressed in vintage clothing from the ’30s and ’40s, replete with boas, extravagant hats, and handkerchiefs) performed a combination of wildly intricate Jazz, Blues, Soul, Funk, and Rock tunes, and their jaw-dropping vocal harmonies, something more akin to a bygone era (ie. The Andrews Sisters), sent chills up my spine. Especially breathtaking were periodic forays into scat vocals, with each sister imitating a brass instrument most closely associated with their individual vocal range. Amazing stuff!

The diverse range of material on this debut includes numerous highlights, such as the band’s famous rocking/funk version of Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can,” several ’40s-like jazz tunes with mile-a-minute four-part harmonies such as “Pains And Tears” and “Cloudburst,” a few slinky pieces such as “Naked Foot” and “Jada,” a tribute to the songs of yesteryear entitled (appropriately) “Old Songs,” an experimental scat-vocal excursion “That’s How I Feel,” and a rousing bluesy/funky version of Willie Dixon’s classic “Wang Dang Doodle,” with the gals trading off lead vocals and ad-libbing up a storm. Again, awe-inspiring vocal performances abound on each and every track, and whether or not you’re into the particular musical styles covered on this album, there’s no denying the magnificent talent on display.

The band continued in this vein for several more albums before one of the sisters (Bonnie) left for a solo career, whereas the remaining trio took a path toward more rocking territory, then eventually moved into the electronic pop genre that made them enormously famous in the ’80s. Frankly, after growing familiar with this album and the two immediate follow-ups (That’s A Plenty and Steppin’) I can’t help but wish the group had continued as a four-piece, creating more of the stunning material that graced these initial albums. Simply brilliant.

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Elton John – Madman Across the Water (1971)

EltonJohn_Madman4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Although I was never a huge fan of Elton John’s “mid-seventies and after” career once he transformed himself into the flamboyant, glammy-glasses, boas and feathers, and platform-wearing “Rock ‘n’ Roll Liberace,” I did enjoy several of his earliest unpretentious and lighter piano-featured releases, especially his fourth studio effort, Madman Across the Water. Talk about capturing lightning in a bottle, where every aspect of the songwriting process, performances, and production seem blessed with musical magic.

Most of the tracks on this album are absolutely haunting—due not only to John’s engaging melodies and Bernie Taupin’s thoughtful, creative lyrics, but also to the overall musicianship from those involved, including Paul Buckmaster’s undervalued orchestrations—and they continue to hold a certain majesty even to this day.

Songs such as the title track, along with “Tiny Dancer,” “Indian Summer,” “Levon,” “Rotten Peaches,” “Razor Face,” and the poignantly stark “Goodbye” are simply mesmerizing, making Madman Across the Water near perfect in my eyes, and it undoubtedly remains one of Elton John’s most enduring releases, a true classic.

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