Red: Until We Have Faces

RIYL: Chevelle, Breaking Benjamin, Three Days Grace

Twice-nominated for Grammys and one of mainstream rock’s most successful acts, Red are back with their third studio release, Until We Have Faces. Revolving around the theme of seeking one’s identity (and at least partially-inspired by the C.S. Lewis book, “Till We Have Faces”), this new offering may be the record that Red’s detractors have been foaming at the mouth for. It’s a pretty safe, mainstream offering that sees the band doing what they do best, and not much more. Guess what? It still rocks.

Kicking off with its heaviest track, “Feed the Machine,” Red attack the sound system with a simply epic sound. Featuring heavily down-tuned guitars punctuated with string arrangements and soaring choruses Red’s music personifies “brutal but beautiful.” The single, “Faceless,” is one of the stronger tracks and a very safe radio play. “Let it Burn” and “Not Alone,” in the same vein as previous tracks “Let Go” and “Start Again,” display the band’s penchant for ballads and layered melodies. The closing track, the piano-driven “Hymn for the Missing,” takes on a mythic beauty that holds long after the album is finished.

Red is anchored by vocalist Michael Barnes, whose emotional delivery and at-times wicked scream continues to lift what would otherwise be standard issue rock songs. He’s the perfect fit for what are mainly hopeful, positive lyrics (Red is, after all, a Christian band). The rest of the band is tight, and guitarist Anthony Armstrong carries a one-man army of a tone. Producer Rob Graves, who also produced Red’s previous efforts, knows these guys have a good thing going.

Red are really one of the last truly mainstream rock acts around. They’re heavy enough to bring in fans of more aggressive music, but friendly and catchy enough to cross over to contemporary rock fans. The sensational vocals of Barnes and the beautiful orchestral arrangements really help them separate from the competition. Those expecting progression from a technical standpoint will be disappointed, but savvy veterans content with Red’s place in the musical landscape are going to find a whole new batch of songs to love. (Red Ink/Sony 2011)

Red MySpace page


Elvis Presley: Elvis 75 – Good Rockin’ Tonight

RIYL: 1950s rockabilly, 1960s pop, 1970s country, rock history in general

In honor of Elvis’ 75th birthday – we won’t get into whether he is “the late Elvis” or still rockin’ in the wilds of Michigan – Legacy’s issuing a bunch of records, this one being first up and coinciding with a Graceland bash. In a word, it’s great stuff, a career-spanning retrospective that covers the gamut of the good, bad and ugly from rock’s first real icon, its undisputed King. Elvis diehards probably have most of the 100 tracks spanning the almost 25 years of his recorded career, from the 1953 “My Happiness” demo to Moody Blue tracks; probably only the most manic completists among longtime fans will nibble at this.

For the rest of us, however, it puts Presley’s work in context: There’s no denying the power of Young Elvis, who had an incredible combination of talent, charisma, and the stones to fuse music from black R&B records, gospel, redneck bluegrass, and loud guitars. When he walked into the Memphis Sun Studios and hooked up with label impresario Sam Phillips in 1954 to put down his brilliant first sides, he was just a singer who loved all the music he heard from both sides of the tracks and just didn’t particularly care what people would think if he did. Maybe I’m alone in this opinion, but I believe that all the stuff that came after – the politics, the goofy Graceland stuff, the Army, the movies, the drugs, the Comeback, stuffing his sweaty and overweight frame into sequined Vegas costumes, and finally, the overdose, were not of his doing but caused by external forces he endured, albeit willingly at times. The early songs still sound fresh and crisp: “Mystery Train,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Jailhouse Rock.” A powderkeg of testosterone and unbridled joy. Rock, undistilled. Then comes the ballads, the country, the gospel stuff…the brutal “Suspicion.” It’s all here, along with the 2002 techno remix of “A Little Less Conversation.”

Listening to this end to end, it’s bizarre to hear Elvis’ transformation from the white-hot beginning to the dying embers of a career when he finally ingested that deadly cocktail of prescription drugs. At first, he synthesized all these at-the-time disparate musical influences to create such musical magic. By the mid-1970s, however, he was clinging desperately to country, sounding like a second-rate Hank Jr. knockoff at best (who himself was a poor Xerox of his daddy). Elvis ended up the ghost of his 1950s and early-’60s heyday, barely recognizable and subject to all the ridicule that’s followed his 1977 death. The moral of the story? Elvis wasn’t larger than life; he was just another rock star, human after all. But just like the NFL has good quarterbacks and bad, as far as rock stars go, Elvis was no Kyle Orton; he was Brett Favre, the greatest statistical player – unstoppable at first but maybe should have called it quits before his career turned into a circus. If you’ve never dug Elvis seriously, check out this box. There’s a lot more going on here than Jay Leno punch lines. When he was on top of his game, he wrote rock history with a gorgeously powerful voice and a beguiling smile. This box remembers that part, best. (Sony/Legacy, 2009).


Radney Foster and the Confessions: Revival

RIYL: Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, Ryan Adams

No doubt about it – Revival is quite an apt title for this latest effort from Texas-bred singer/songwriter Radney Foster. Formerly half of the country pop duo Foster and Lloyd, he’s come a long way towards establishing an Americana brand since initially venturing out on his own in the early ’90s. That said, Revival finds him significantly raising the bar and setting a new standard as far as his own output is concerned. An uplifting, soul-defining statement of unadulterated affirmation, both the messages and melodies linger long after the final notes fade away. The songs soar like expansive anthems, and on tracks such as “A Little Revival,” “Forgiveness” and “Shed a Little Light” those stirring sentiments evoke a spiritual ferocity and unbounded optimism in a manner that’s genuinely affecting. “I Made Peace with God” and “Suitcase” are especially revealing, each a testament to a new-found faith that Foster invokes without hesitation.

Still, it would be misleading to dismiss him solely as a would-be Bible thumper; the rowdy and rollicking “Until It’s Gone” and the carefree abandon of “Trouble Tonight” show Foster still solidly ensconced in secular realms. Newcomers ought to consider this an excellent place to begin, while Foster fans will find this his most indelible effort yet. Clearly, this Revival rates a solid hallelujah and an unqualified amen. (Devil’s River Records 2009)

Radney Foster MySpace page


Blind Boys of Alabama: Duets

RIYL: Temptations, Mavis Staples, Al Green

Long revered in gospel circles but never more than teetering on the fringes of popular appeal, the Blind Boys of Alabama opt for a strategy not unlike others in the same predicament, namely, to co-opt some popular names and join forces in a series of duets. While such a stance often diminishes the artists in question, here they find some favorable symmetry even though they’re mostly forced to take a supporting role in the proceedings. The mesh is especially ideal when they’re paired with reggae great Toots Hibbert (“Perfect Peace”), Solomon Burke (“None of Us Are Free”) and Ben Harper (“Take My Hand”), each of whom possess the power, conviction and singing style as their musical hosts. Likewise, its no wonder that Lou Reed’s “Jesus” is the most stirring song he’s offered since his days with the Velvets.

Unfortunately, handing the spotlight to guest stars does have its drawbacks; when lumped in the company of other eloquent voices – Susan Tedeschi on the powerful “Magnificent Sanctuary Band,” Bonnie Raitt with the eloquent “When the Spell Is Broken” and Timothy B. Schmidt on the ballad “Secular Praise” – it’s hard not to shake the impression that the Blind Boys are merely along for the ride, relegated to the role of hired hands on their own album. Wisely, the producers confine most of the material to an inspirational context, those soaring gospel harmonies being at their best in the service of faith and belief. Here’s hoping that by linking their fortunes to these marquee names, the Blind Boys of Alabama not only rally their faithful but rouse non-believers as well. (Saguaro Road 2009)

Blind Boys of Alabama website


Ronnie Milsap: Then Sings My Soul

Country singers can always release a gospel album when things are going badly. And many times, that’s how the album works – badly. There are exceptions of course, but Ronnie Milsap’s Then Sings My Soul is not one of them. It’s too bad, since the singer’s 2006 autobiographical album My Life was considered something of a comeback. All the usual suspects are present on Soul, including “I’ll Fly Away,” “Amazing Grace,” “Rock of Ages” and “The Old Rugged Cross,” but they’re robbed of any soul by the slick production and Milsap’s uninspiring vocals. One doesn’t want to be too hard on the man, and some might ask, “what did you expect from the guy behind ’Smokey Mountain Rain’ and ’(There’s) No Getting Over Me.’? ” It might have been more surprising if Milsap had actually found something new in the old classics. Here’s hoping this can be chalked up as a misstep, and Milsap can get back on track. (EMI CMG 2009)


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