Robin Trower, Prefab Sprout, Frank Zappa, Duffy, Hinder and Tom Caufield

Ho ho motherhumping ho. How did we get to December? And Christmas? And 2011? Holy crap on a communion cracker, are the years shrinking along with the economy? That felt like 10 months to me, tops. Maybe less. C'est la vie. Let's check out some new albums

Ho ho motherhumping ho. How did we get to December? And Christmas? And 2011? Holy crap on a communion cracker, are the years shrinking along with the economy? That felt like 10 months to me, tops. Maybe less.

C’est la vie. It’s time to cruise on into the new year with some sense of style and optimism, the mid-term elections notwithstanding. So, with a couple more posts left in the old year and a pile of material teetering next to my desk, in the spirit of the truncated year gone by, let’s race headlong into the review fray.

Over the course of his four-decade career, Robin Trower has often found himself on the outs with critics. Trower was virtually invisible during his tenure with the keyboard-heavy Procol Harum (at least until his breakout role on his last album with the band, 1972’s aptly titled Broken Barricades) and he was typically dismissed as a talented but ultimately pale copyist of Jimi Hendrix’s incendiary guitar style once he embarked on his solo career with 1973’s Twice Removed from Yesterday. For his part, Trower made no secret of his deep respect and admiration for Hendrix and it clearly shone through on his early albums, particularly his smash 1974 sophomore release, Bridge of Sighs.

The success of Bridge of Sighs illuminated a very valid point about Robin Trower — fans didn’t particularly care that he was emulating Hendrix. They proved it by vaulting his albums onto the charts in gold- and platinum-tinted numbers (he was assisted in his efforts by the flawless honey bourbon vocals of bassist James Dewar). But even Trower’s fans had their limits; after the dour and underrated Long Misty Days, he covered old ground a little too often and became the victim of the law of diminishing returns.

Eventually, Trower arrived at the same conclusion as Hendrix, namely that the pursuit of a purer form of the Blues was in order. After Dewar’s departure in the early ’80s (he suffered some alleged medical malfeasance in the late ’80s and was essentially disabled until a stroke claimed his life in 2002), Trower worked with a variety of vocalists, including former Cream bassist Jack Bruce, and even took to the mic himself for a few albums. Trower found a capable substitute for Dewar’s powerfully gritty, soulful vocals in former Gamma/Ronnie Montrose lead singer Davey Pattison, who has remained with Trower (save for occasional forays with Montrose, Michael Schenker and on his own, among other projects) since 1987’s Passion.

For Trower’s latest album, The Playful Heart, the guitarist offers his most subdued and quietly powerful work to date, featuring the most emotive songwriting and playing of his long career. On the guitar side of the equation, Trower blends his longstanding love of Hendrix (“Don’t Look Back,” “And We Shall Call It Love”) with his Blues exploration (“Dressed in Gold”), dialing back the fireworks to craft a guitar sound that is supple and strong, never overly flashy or overwhelming and yet unmistakably his own.

“Find Me” is a slinky, smoldering example of Trower at the absolute pinnacle of his powers, peeling off riffs and solos of heartbreaking force; when the song begins to fade out at the six-minute mark, it seems altogether too soon. And then there are the songs that feel like unearthed Bridge of Sighs sessions: the insistent atmospheric pulse of “The Turning”; the swaggering “Song for Those Who Fell”; the gentle ache of “Maybe I Can Be a Friend.” And on the songwriting front, Trower has rarely if ever been so nakedly evocative and emotional in his lyrical and musical presentation, from the autobiographical title track to the quietly determined “Prince of Shattered Dreams” to the jazzy after hours lilt of “Camille.” With Pattison’s capable vocals and the bedrock foundation of his longstanding rhythm section of bassist Glenn Letsch and drummer Pete Thompson, Trower has invested The Playful Heart with the majestic gravity of his early work and the subtle power that can only come from years of toil and tears, both personal and professional.

Back in the ’80s, British Pop had largely abandoned Punk for either an edgy yet melodic amalgam of Power Pop and its spiky musical predecessor or a polished yet compelling brand of synthy Soul Pop that was simultaneously epic and romantic, expansive and heartfelt. Among the greatest purveyors of the latter style (Spandau Ballet, Simply Red, Scritti Politti), Prefab Sprout stood fairly tall. Although they never really rose above a cult following here in America, the band, led by Paddy and Martin McAloon, were regular visitors to the top of the UK charts (particularly their amazing 1984 album, Steve McQueen, produced by Thomas Dolby and released in the U.S. as Two Wheels Good).

Even though the band’s output was sporadic in the latter half of the ’90s and into the new millennium, Paddy McAloon’s legacy as a songwriter was already secure. In a recent ranking of the 100 greatest tunesmiths in British musical history, McAloon placed in the respectable lower reaches of the list.

Prefab Sprout’s new album, Let’s Change the World with Music, is the band’s first album of new material since 2001’s The Gunman and Other Stories, but there are a couple of points worth noting. The band is largely just Paddy McAloon these days (he released I Trawl the Megahertz in 2003 under his own name), and Music is an album that actually predates Gunman. In its original form, Music was a collection of demos that was intended as the follow-up to 1990’s Jordan: The Comeback but wound up being shelved (McAloon planned the original title track as a duet with Barbra Streisand).

The fact that the material on Music was envisioned 17 years ago may make the album seem slightly anachronistic, but one person’s anachronism is another’s classicism, and Music is McAloon’s brand of keyboard-driven and lyrically-rich lush life Soul Pop explored to its gorgeous outer reaches, from the pulsing insistence of “Ride” to the slinky Pop Jazz smoke of “I Love Music” to the late night heartbreak balladry of “God Watch Over You” and the crooning majesty of “Last of the Great Romantics.”

Let’s Change the World with Music was released in the UK over a year ago to deservedly positive acclaim, resulting in Top 40 sales, but don’t look for a tour to accompany the U.S. release of the album; McAloon suffers from debilitating tinnitus and it’s literally painful for him to sing. Given the proper exposure in the current Pop atmosphere, particularly the subset of the Glee phenomenon, there’s no reason that Prefab Sprout couldn’t finally enjoy the ecstatic reception that they deserved 25 years ago.

Literally and figuratively, I miss Frank Zappa’s voice. In the literal sense, I miss the physical timbre of his vocal instrument, its singular intonation and the nonchalantly brilliant wordplay that emanated from it, which was every bit as distinctive and compelling as his sinewy and supple guitar ministrations. In the figurative sense, I miss Zappa’s unique perspective on the cultural and political issues of the day, opinions that often differed wildly from those on the left or the right but that cut to the heart of the matter at hand with surgical precision and utilized a truth so glaringly bright that it offered no dark corner for convenient lies or inconvenient facts to hide. How we could have used Zappa’s insight during the Bush administration.

Those two Zappa voices are at the heart of Congress Shall Make No Law..., the latest album from Zappa Records, Frank’s label now run by the Zappa Family Trust. Utilizing very little actual music, Congress takes us back to the dark days of 1985, when Congress was considering legislation to force record companies to rate and label their musical output in an effort to warn parents about the possibly sinister content that lurked within. Disregarding that the sinister content of any artistic endeavor could be judged differently by every parent in the country, the Parents Music Resource Center, a non-governmental committee vice-chaired by Tipper Gore and Susan Baker, the wives of then-Sen. Al Gore and then-Treasury Secretary James Baker, respectively, led the charge.

On Sept. 19, 1985, Zappa, along with John Denver and Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider, testified before the Senate Science & Transportation Committee to object to any officially sanctioned labeling of music, with Zappa rightfully exposing it as de facto censorship and pointing out the myriad flaws in the thinking behind the push for legislation. (Most of the labels eventually caved and voluntarily stickered albums; Zappa obviously refused and came up with his own warning label that began, “This album contains material which a truly free society would neither fear nor suppress.”)

Congress Shall Make No Law... features Zappa’s recorded testimony in Washington and also in Annapolis, Md., when the state legislature there was considering a bill that would ban the distribution of obscene music to minors. Some of this material made its way, in hilariously altered fashion, into the song “Porn Wars” on Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention in 1985.

Zappa, of course, makes his case brilliantly in the face of legislators so profoundly uptight that the sticks in their asses have political action committees; at one point in his Annapolis testimony, Zappa seeks to clarify if delegates were misquoted and some cushionfart in the Senate asks if Zappa is testifying to or cross-examining the committee and gets applause for calling a layman on a point of political order (which was clearly his only defense against Zappa’s irrefutable anti-censorship stance).

This was a quarter century ago, and the same caliber of douche nozzles are still running our local, state and national governments today. The only difference now is that we don’t have Frank Zappa looking out for our inalienable First Amendment freedoms anymore. If you need some inspiration to take up the fight, Congress Shall Make No Law... is a good place to start. The liner notes include Zappa’s original five-page letter to Ronald Reagan, news clippings about his appearances and the PMRC’s ignorant fund-raising letter — oh, so money was involved, was it? — among other goodies. And as you’re listening to the words of one of this country’s most talented, unique and committed musical artists, remember the words of one of this country’s biggest founding freaks, Thomas Jefferson: “When the people fear the government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.”

Aimee Ann Duffy, the Welsh singer/songwriter/actress known simply by her surname, has the kind of soulful voice that one would think has been cultivated from an early age. And although Duffy has been singing for the better part of her life, her introduction to the Soul/Pop music she nails with a swaggering authority came at a relatively late stage in her career and life. Her main influences at the point where she was singing in school (she was advised out of choir because her voice was “too big”) were her father’s videotapes of the British Rock show Ready Steady Go! and Whoopi Goldberg’s performance in Sister Act.

At 19, after having sung professionally for three years, Duffy appeared on a Welsh television talent show, coming in second, an experience she despised. She subsequently met Rough Trade’s Jeanette Lee, who became her manager and introduced her to ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler. The guitarist gave her an iPod education in Soul, introducing her to Al Green, Ann Peebles, Doris Duke, Bettye Swann and more. Butler and musical partner David McAlmont were the core of Duffy’s studio band for her debut album Rockferry, which took nearly four years to complete due to budget restrictions. But her performances of the song “Mercy” during a number of well-timed TV appearances, including The Culture Show and Later With Jools Holland, created a buzz that sent Rockferry straight to No. 1 upon release. To date, the album has sold 6 million copies worldwide.

With that big voice and a Soul presentation that’s so retro it seems as though she should be filmed in nothing but black and white, Duffy’s had to contend with comparisons to Amy Winehouse. There’s clearly a lot riding on her sophomore album, Endlessly, and much has changed; Lee no longer manages Duffy and she’s replaced Butler with Albert Hammond, father of The Strokes’ guitarist and successful Pop artist in his own right, as her writing partner. The shifts had a profound effect; reviews for Endlessly have been decidedly mixed and sales have been considerably lower, which isn’t unusual for second albums. And while it’s true that Duffy is not nearly an incendiary vocalist on a par with Winehouse, she is not demon-pursued either.

If Endlessly suffers from anything, it’s the inevitable lack of surprise that comes with the follow-up to a platinum debut. The album’s first single, “Well, Well, Well,” a roiling Soul/Funk workout with The Roots as Duffy’s back-up band, should have been a slam-dunk hit but had a hard time even cracking the Top 40. On Endlessly, Duffy maintains a solid grasp on the retro/Neo Soul that defined Rockferry (“Breath Away,” “Too Hurt to Dance,” the title track) while simultaneously branching into a dancier Soul form (“My Boy,” “Lovestruck”) and a combination of the two (“Girl”).

That diffusion may be the cause of the division in opinion on Endlessly — the album is admittedly good when it should be great — but when Duffy settles into a style, she’s likely to notch platinum numbers once again.

Speaking of big first albums, Hinder knows that drill pretty well, but there was a twist to their story. The Oklahoma City quintet borrowed heavily to create their initial demo but sold 5,000 copies, repaid their loan and had money left in their pockets. Internet exposure led to a Universal contract and their 2005 debut album, Extreme Behavior, but their first single rose and fell sharply, leaving the band with little to do but take to the road to build their fan base one audience at a time.

Over a year later, the band chose “Lips of an Angel” for their next single. The release coincided with the band’s opening slot on Nickelback’s 2006 tour, helping to place the song and the band’s debut full-length album high on the charts and making Hinder one of the big success stories of the year. The group’s 2008 sophomore album, Take It to the Limit, found Hinder moving in a decidedly Glam Metal direction and while it hit the charts in the Top 5, its gold certification was a long way from Extreme Behavior’s triple platinum numbers.

For its third album, All American Nightmare, Hinder wrote close to 75 songs, tracked 50 and whittled the set down to 10 for release. Hinder seems to be channeling their inner Guns ’N Roses, not too much of stretch given fronman Austin Winkler’s gravelly vocals and penchant for arena-rattling anthemics and power balladry. The GNR vibe radiates immediately from Nightmare’s opening cut, the ominous thunder roll of “2 Sides of Me,” where Winkler enunciates his syllables with Axl-like dramatics, guitarist Joe “Blower” Garvey pushes his solos into a Slashy stratosphere. With the title track, the band folds a little AC/DC into their GNR and by “Hey Ho,” the time the band spent on the road with Nickelback bubbles up through the mix.

While not everyone is enamored of Hinder’s work ( cited Extreme Behavior as one of the worst albums of 2006, and they weren’t the only ones), the band has clearly found a big audience with its hybrid of old-school Hard Rock and contemporary Glam and Pop Metal elements. And the band understands the importance of dynamics, stringing together the visceral Rock of “Striptease,” a denunciation of Pop tarts like Ke$ha, with the somber, piano-based ballad “Everybody’s Wrong” and the radio/Rock celebration “Put That Record On,” a song Kid Rock could kick all the way to the top.

Love them or hate them, Hinder does what they do with an admirable sincerity and an undeniable intensity, and that’s what sets them apart from lesser talents.

If the name Tom Caufield is familiar, you might know him from his recent releases or you might be among the lucky few to be aware of his brilliant 1987 Pop treatise, Long Distance Calling, a near perfect hybrid of Eric Carmen’s Pop romanticism and Bruce Springsteen’s heartland Rock populism. But it’s a safe bet that if you know Caufield, you also know that he began as Tom Toth and was the keyboardist for the seminal version of Cincinnati music heroes The Raisins (he co-wrote “Your Song Is Mine” from the band’s only studio album; he’d already left to launch his solo career when the album came out in 1983, replaced by the irrepressible Rick “Ricky Nye” Neiheisel).

After Long Distance Calling, Toth recorded a number of albums under his own name and even explored a quasi-Delta Blues direction as Thomas, all bearing some elements of Toth’s flawless Pop execution and hyperliterate sense of songcraft.

On his last album, last year’s The Times Are Never So Bad, Toth resurrected his Tom Caufield identity, 22 years after his debut with that moniker (he also has a male/female harmony duo with Yasmine Tanriverdi using the Caufield surname), and he continues the revival with his latest album, More Fire for the Firedome.

Firedome hews closer to the gentler Pop side of the Toth/Caufield formula, as he toggles between his proven expertise in heartfelt Pop balladry and a similar direction with a slight Reggae veneer. The album opens with “Effortless,” a Pop ode to true love that wouldn’t have sounded out of place right in the middle of Long Distance Calling (perhaps as side one’s version of “I Should Work for This”); a similar Pop tone emanates from “Test of Time,” “Out of Reach” and “Work in Progress,” a song that Bryan Adams could ride straight into the Top 10. Toth’s shuffling island vibe provides the groove on “Greed Gods,” “Waiting on a New Day” and the title track, but he closes out Firedome with a Dylanesque protest ballad, the quiet, observational chastisement of “Change Will Come From the Streets.”

There might be truth in the criticism that, other than the stylistic shifts, there is little rhythmic variation on Firedome, but it’s equally true that Caufield has the songwriting skill and executional chops to pull off an album of mid-tempo Pop ballads that’s so good it doesn’t need the adrenaline of a balls-out Rock anthem or the counterpoint of a downcast tearjerker. At the same time, one does hold out hope that Toth/Caufield will revisit those concepts on his next album, which one additionally hopes will be extremely soon.

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