NEW ROADS: Composer, vocalist, guitarist and Ottawa, Ontario native Sue Foley has once again outdone herself with her most recent release for the Edmonton, Alberta-based Stony Plain label, The Ice Queen. The album features guest appearances by Charlie Sexton, Jimmie Vaughan and Moving Sidewalks co-founder Billy Gibbons. Editor/Publisher Michael McDowell has the story below (Click on above image to enlarge).


Sue Foley (Stony Plain)

For roughly the past two decades or so, the genre known as the blues has seemingly been its own worst enemy.

Inspired by the visionaries that preceded them, many of the blues' current exponents have (however unintentionally) nonetheless drawn from those inspirations and followed through in such a manner that lost something in the translation between intent and execution. The results are often a generic twelve-bar template that is rendered somewhat homogenous by presumed solidarity with immediate post-Woodstock era arena rock.

All of which makes a new release from veteran composer, vocalist, guitarist and Ottawa, Ontario native Sue Foley a reason to rejoice. Beginning with her acclaimed Young Girl Blues album in 1992, Foley's various subsequent releases for the Antone's Records, Shanachie, Ruf and Blind Pig labels (the latter of which heretofore seemed to be the most sympathetic to her cause) found her consistently striving for the diversity, passion and individuality that seemed to be lacking in concurrent releases by others. 

The Ice Queen marks Foley's debut for the Edmonton, Alberta - based Stony Plain label, and the pairing could not have been more fortuitous. Long known for championing creative autonomy within their artist roster, Stony Plain herein has afforded Foley (who long ago relocated to Austin, Texas) a sympathetic vehicle to shine accordingly. The results are borne out accordingly in the doom-laden 81, as well as the exuberant swamp rocker Run, the mid-tempo, soul-tinged Gaslight (not to be confused with the 1967 Ugly Ducklings single of the same name), the conventional twelve-bar duet with Moving Sidewalks co-founder Billy Gibbons, Fool's Gold, the playful Jimmy Vaughan collaboration, The Lucky Ones and inspired covers of Bessie Smith's Send Me To The 'Lectric Chair and the Carter Family's Cannonball Blues.

Whether rendering from a purist perspective or one that professes varying degrees of solidarity with sympathetic genres, Foley is herein (as always) astute enough to remain a cut above the herd. And with The Ice Queen, she has once again (to invoke the title of her classic 2000 album for Antone's Records) used her Secret Weapon for maximum impact.

The Hot Texas Swing Band (Indie)

In terms of prerequisite technical proficiency, there are simply some musical genres which are not for the faint hearted. 

One such genre is Western Swing. By definition, the intricate arrangements, as well as the frequent key and time signature changes (not to mention the ongoing need for vocalist and instrument to play off of one another) make it among the most demanding of forms to render both competently and with conviction. 

To wit, a 1955 color video clip has most thankfully survived in which country music giant Jimmy Dickens introduces an instrumental workout of the monster classic Decca label single, Roanoke by Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. What follows Dickens' opening remarks is roughly two and a half minutes of full on, no holes barred virtuoso assault by some of the most jaw dropping technical masters in all of music, including the great Jackie Phelps on banjo and Monroe himself on mandolin. Without uttering a word, Monroe and company come to a cold ending with looks of a job extraordinarily well done that at once suggest both gratitude to the Lord for being blessed with such remarkable gifts, offset by a self-satisfaction that dares one and all to, "Try and top that!" before casually walking off stage.

Indeed, it is attaining and retaining that level of proficiency, inspiration and the indispensable attribute of heart that inspires the Hot Texas Swing Band on to similar heights. Fronted by bassist and primary lead vocalist Alex Dormont, the ten-piece band in this, their fourth album, comes closer to that goal than ever before. Meshing astutely chosen covers with duly inspired original material, the band herein draws the necessary fine line between dutiful imitation and thinking so far outside the box as to lose sight of the original vision.

To that effect, one particular cover places them in solidarity with their professed inspirations of Bob Wills, Cindy Walker and Johnny Gimble. Composed by the great Stuart Hamblen (who also wrote This Ole House for Rosemary Clooney, as well as Dean Martin's Remember Me), Texas Plains has been recorded by such absolute masters as Gene Autry, Hank Snow, Roy Rogers and others. This vivid tale of life Off The Beaten Trail affords Dormont the best opportunity herein to soar, with his unique vocal persona (a potent mix of the best of Sollie Paul "Tex" Williams and the late and much missed Beat Farmers drummer, Daniel Monte "Country Dick Montana" McClain, with a touch of Fugs co-founder Tuli Kupferberg) and the band's judicious accompaniment providing the closest realization of the basics of their professed mission statement. 

In turn, co-lead vocalists Selena Rosanbalm and Liz Morphis are also featured prominently throughout the proceedings. And once again, it is a well chosen cover that brings out the best of that facet of the band's focus, in the form of the great Ella Mae Morse's 1942 signature single, Cow Cow Boogie, as well as the endearing 6/8 romp, Baton Rouge Waltz.

And while spot on interpretations of Julie London's 1956 default Liberty single, Cry Me A River and George Jones' Jiles Perry "The Big Bopper" Richardson-penned White Lightnin' may seem like curious diversions, they nonetheless double as both examples of the flexibility of the band's mission statement, as well as the instrumental dexterity of steel guitarist Dave Biller, trumpeter Jimmy Shortell and saxophonist Joey Colarusso, all of whom especially shine accordingly on Snow In Amarillo and the Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington and Lester "Les Paul" Polfus-inspired instrumental, Bull Whip.

Indeed, while the Hot Texas Swing Band may envision themselves in the physical realm as being drawn Off The Beaten Trail, from a musical perspective, they are making decisive and inspiring steps towards attainting the level of perfection consistently demonstrated by their inspirations. Herein, they profess to be Headed Back To The Barn to do so. But irrespective of their venue of choice, it seems that being Off The Beaten Trail is actually remaining on the right track.

Rob Martinez (Karma Frog)

As Karma Frog Records founder and president Adam Marsland continues his sabbatical overseas, the label's remaining artist roster is persevering with a vengeance.

Foremost among them is the Albuquerque, New Mexico - based composer and vocalist Rob Martinez, whose Today My Mind.....Tomorrow The World was released in the closing weeks of 2017. A firm believer in the potential of the tried and true verse, chorus and bridge template, Martinez once again takes that basic framework far beyond the parameters of his professed primary inspirations of Cheap Trick and Crowded House.

To that effect, the ten originals in this collection (each of which were either written or co-authored by Martinez) all boast exceptionally strong bridges (as evidenced in abundance in the album's opener, Let Me Tell You Why), which serves as a pause for reflection in between the slices of relentless optimism that bookend it. In turn, the slightly psych-tinged, mid-tempo Sooner Or Later finds Martinez relying more on atmosphere to deliver a message that is somewhat incongruous with expectations. Taking it a step further, Conspiracy confounds expectations by mixing relational, spiritual and socio-political metaphors to revisit the basis of the human experience, underscored by a score with a propensity towards the fatalistic.

Aiding and abetting Martinez in this project are the usual world class support team, including Adam Marsland on the majority of instrumental responsibilities, Dragster Barbie's utterly stupendous Teresa Cowles on backing vocals (on the album's closer, Will U B My Lover, aided and abetted by Pacific Soul Limited) and the legendary Earle Mankey seeing the mastering process through to completion. Once again, in his endeavors to state his case decisively, Martinez has managed to, in the words of one of this collection's standout cuts, Get It Right.

Billy Price (Vizztone)

In Major League Baseball, there have been so-called superstars, who are expected to perform above expectations and amass extraordinary career stats in the process. Their ranks would include the likes of George Herman "Babe" Ruth, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle and Mike Piazza.

Joining them would be a gifted group of colleagues, sometimes known as the everyday player. While not necessarily in a position to break Williams' 1941 season batting average of .406, they could nonetheless be counted on to get the job done consistently and decisively. Among them would be Chicago White Sox catcher John Sherman "Sherm" Lollar, Detroit Tigers first baseman Norman Dalton "Norm" Cash, Oakland Athletics pitcher Vida Blue and Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Brett Butler. 

Musically speaking, veteran vocalist and Fair Lawn, New Jersey native William "Billy Price" Pollak is best described as an everyday player with superstar inclinations. With fifteen albums to his credit to date, Price has also collaborated with the likes of guitarist Roy Buchanan and R&B visionary Otis Clay.

Produced by Kid Andersen at Greaseland Studios, Reckoning finds Price taking more than just a pedestrian approach to a genre that has often suffered as such in the hands of many of its modern day exponents. Herein, he tackles the most challenging of outside material, from Denise LaSalle's Get Your Lie Straight to Otis Redding's seemingly impossible to top I Love You More Than Words Can Say.

Taking his cue accordingly, Price also contributes several originals that follow suit. Chief among them would be One And One, which does the Memphis Soul template justice, while name checking George Jones and Tammy Wynette in the process. He has even called upon Marcel Smith to open the title track with a bit of fire and brimstone preaching to drive the point home. 

Appropriately enough, Price currently plies his trade with the Vizztone label, which has been unrelenting in its dedication to the genre within the current decade. Despite the resultant potential for overkill, the astute artist will find a way to get the job done decisively. And with Reckoning, that is exactly what Price has done.

Chip Taylor (Train Wreck)

While the term "thinking outside of the box" has become somewhat of a cliché in and of itself in the current century, it nonetheless continues to serve as an apt description of the work of some of the most forward thinking veteran musicians.

Among those who are in the forefront in that respect is composer, vocalist and New York City native James Wesley "Chip Taylor" Voight. Taylor made his recording debut in 1961 with the Hal David-penned rocker, If You Don't Want Me Now (coupled with the original Sad Songs) for the MGM label. While perhaps inadvertently tipping the hat to Brian Hyland's like minded Warmed Over Kisses, Left Over Love, If You Don't Want Me Know ultimately also provided peripheral inspiration in terms of arrangement for Elvis Presley's Do The Clam and Shirley Ellis' The Name Game.

Duly inspired, Taylor signed with Warner Brothers in 1962, where his self-penned Here I Am admirably showcased his mastery of high drama. Subsequent outings for Mala, Chicory, Columbia and Rainy Day Records found him growing exponentially in that respect throughout the remainder of the decade. 

As a composer, Taylor finished out the 1960s with three of the decade's most acclaimed releases to his credit. Following the departure of the band's late and much missed lead vocalist, Jordan Christopher in 1966, the Wild Ones (with guitarist Chuck Alden assuming the lead vocalist role) joined forces with the legendary Dickey Doo And The Don'ts co-founder Gerry Granahan as producer to record Taylor's Wild Thing. Widely regarded as a hallmark of first generation garage rock, Wild Thing was subsequently covered by the Troggs, the Hardly Worthit Players, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and others.

That same year, Taylor gave one of folk rock's most revered trios, the Pozo Seco Singers their signature single, I Can Make It With You. And in 1967, Taylor's sublime high drama masterpiece, Angel Of The Morning provided the great Evie Sands with a career highlight for the ill fated and much missed Cameo label.

By the early 1970s, Taylor joined forces with Buddah Records. While at Buddah, he and his fellow veteran artists and label mates Paul Anka, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Trade Martin and Barbara Mason turned their attention increasingly towards albums. In the process, each increased the depth of their respective catalogs exponentially. 

Following a protracted sabbatical from music, Taylor retuned to active duty in 1996 with a vengeance and with his own label. His Train Wreck Records served as both a vehicle for his own work and as a forum for like minded colleagues. A subsequent venture with Evie Sands was inevitable, given that both artists continue to thrive on challenge borne of self-assessment. The resultant and ambitious Queen Of Diamonds / Jack Of Hearts album by Sands and fellow visionary Billy Vera was released on Train Wreck in September 2014.

Appropriately enough, the not so ironically named Train Wreck Records provides the forum for the project at hand. Not that the label name is a reference to the results. If anything, the train wreck at hand is the expectations of those who take exception to artists thinking outside of the box.

If indeed there is an inspiration in terms of execution for Fix Your Words, it is in the later works of the late Leonard Cohen, who opted for a subtle delivery in order to direct attention towards his lyrical content. Taylor follows suit here, with eleven tracks that vacillate between the autobiographical and the idyllic, with equally satisfying results.

To wit, When I Was A Kid mercifully, thankfully and most encouragingly takes a decisive step of candor towards embracing the best of inspirations, rather than the select few that seem to be prerequisite in a given artist's curriculum vitae, yet which ultimately suggest a lack of individualism. In Taylor's case, those inspirations are Don Howard (whose late 1952 Oh Happy Day single for Essex Records was one of the most unique offerings of the genre) and the great Hank Williams in his Luke The Drifter persona. Most assuredly, the impact of the latter is felt decisively here in Taylor's narrative delivery.

In turn, A Little Bit Of Underground celebrates the joy of discovery itself. Rather than allowing the mainstream to dictate his taste and vision, Taylor instead embraces individualism in both the creative process and as a guidepost in navigating the storms of life, and astutely celebrates both as a prototype of the hereafter. The undercurrent of Gospel in the coda underscores the point succinctly.

Most assuredly, Taylor envisions his observations as a clarion call of sorts. The Ground Moving Around Me suggests as much, as does the ongoing impasse of Crazy Dreams Crazy; perhaps the final unresolved impasse in the hope springs eternal perspective. 

Whatever the case, Taylor's conclusions, while undergirded with individuality, nonetheless reflect the universal coming to terms with the wisdom encountered at the inevitable crossroads. And while he astutely cautions, "Time will show you other dreams to share, and you'll be happy.....maybe" in You Just Think You Changed Your Mind, he brings it all back home at song's end as a counterpoint to his own professed penchant for exercises in futility.

In other words, there are those who would force a visionary artist back into the box and nail the lid shut. But with Fix Your Words, Taylor blows the lid off of the box and comes out fighting in a way that gives ongoing credence to the mission statement of the title as in part reiterating Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 1839 observation that the pen is mightier than the sword. 

The Tol-Puddle Martyrs
(Secret Deals)

Among many still active veteran artists, the tendency has been among their long faithful press colleagues to afford them a free pass, irrespective of their current level of creativity or ongoing acumen in live performance. Much of that assessment is often borne of unwavering respect for their catalogs which, in the case of many, still set the standard of excellence more than a half century after the fact. 

As such, it is somewhat disconcerting when some such artists presume that their present day audience is unable to discern their legacy from that of others who may have for whatever reason attained and sustained a relatively greater degree of notoriety. The result is often a live set bereft of much of what has made them, in favor of overdone cover material by a small cadre of like minded and more obvious artists who really don't need the additional exposure.

Such is most assuredly not the case with the still very much active and prolific first generation garage rock pioneers, the Tol-Puddle Martyrs, who are still led by band founder, principal architect and Bendigo, Victoria native Peter Rechter. A veteran of both Peter and the Silhouettes and (later) the Secrets (not to be confused with the legendary Cleveland, Ohio vocal quartet that released He's The Boy, Here He Comes Now! and The Boy Next Door for the Philips label in 1963 - 1964), Rechter reactivated the Tol-Puddle Martyrs in the twenty-first century after a decades-long sabbatical, with nearly a half dozen albums of all new and primarily original material to their credit. 

With Polyphony, the band once again relies on the strengths of Rechter as composer and instrumentalist (keyboards) and long time collaborator Graham McCoy (guitars). The twelve selections herein vary slightly from the more psychedelic-oriented offerings that dominated their A Celebrated Man and Psych-Out USA albums. To wit, the opening track, When I Was Young is not a cover of the Animals' 1967 single, but a straightforward and candid account of how concurrent visions continue to resonate and inspire.

In turn, the genial 20/20 To Zero provides an upbeat showcase for a number of universally recognized causes for change. That pattern reoccurs throughout the proceedings, from the everyman impasses highlighted in One Drop In The Ocean to the somewhat abstract clarion call outlined in Mrs. Merkel. Rechter even went as far as to draw from the inspiration of Gary Lewis and the Playboys with Count Me In, an original inspired by that band's March 1965 single of the same name.

And while the issues highlighted in the lyrics may be somewhat generic, the execution is most assuredly well arranged, well executed and (most of all) resplendent in that most essential attribute: heart. One more reason for the band's resident visionary to continue to be A Celebrated Man.