damn yankees

REVIEW: Tommy Shaw and Contemporary Youth Orchestra – Sing For the Day! (2017)

TOMMY SHAW and Contemporary Youth Orchestra – Sing For the Day! (2017 Universal)

These kids can play!

Tommy Shaw, accompanied by Will Evankovich, conductor Liza Grossman, and a whole orchestra full of highschool kids will blow you away on the live concert CD Sing For the Day!  It’s astounding to think that this room full of kids is so good that they got to perform the hits of Shaw with the master himself, and get it released as an album.  What gifted young musicians they must be.

Styx fans will adore Sing For the Day! for its roll call of classic songs, performed acoustically with the orchestra.  Styx music lends itself well to that kind of pomp and circumstance.  The album also boasts a number of Shaw favourites outside of Styx, like his first solo hit “Girls With Guns”.  With a new arrangement, “Girls With Guns” is almost unrecognizable but yet familiar.  You’ll also get Damn Yankees’ excellent “Come Again” and of course their hit ballad “High Enough”.

The album commences brilliantly with “Overture” from the newest Styx album The Mission.  Bar now set “high enough”, they run through “Girls With Guns”, “Too Much Time on My Hands” and “Fooling Yourself” with aplomb and joie de vivre.  You wouldn’t be going out on a limb to suggest that these kids do as good a job of it as Styx themselves do.  “Crystal Ball” soars majestic.  “Boat on a River” simmers quietly.  Most of the arrangements offer a freshness while being true to the spirit of the originals.  The only sputter is “Renegade”, which is stripped down and a little strange.

Set highlights include “Diamond” from Tommy’s 1997 album 7 Deadly Zens, a pretty incredible track.  “Come Again” is brilliant, as is the bombastic oldie “Man in the Wilderness”.  “Blue Collar Man” is among the best versions of the song ever recorded, and completely different from the original.  Fans should enjoy just about the whole shebang.  Casual listeners would recognize a number of these songs and might get a kick out of these novel interpretations.

Do not hesitate if you happen to find this CD in the wild.  It’s better than you might expect.

4/5 stars

Advertisements

REVIEW: Styx – Regeneration Volume II (2011)

STYX – Regeneration Volume II (2011 Eagle Rock)

Long nights, impossible odds?  If you wanna discuss impossible odds, then let’s discuss re-recording your old hits.  It’s not usually a good idea.  In Styx’s case, it gave them a chance to sell some product while out on tour, but the new versions are no replacements for the old.

“Blue Collar Man” has that big fat organ riff, but it’s…different.  Technology can’t reproduce magic, and the original “Blue Collar Man” was pure magic.  It’s also missing Dennis DeYoung’s inimitable backing vocals.  The current Styx sure can sing, but Dennis’ voice was a big part of the chorus.  “Renegade” is more successful.  Todd Sucherman really stretches out on the drums.  The kid’s got talent!

James Young’s “Miss America” has more bite than the original.  “Snowblind” benefits from the re-recording, having more depth now.  Styx also get points for redoing “Queen of Spades”, now starring Lawrence Gowan.  Styx have plenty of hits, but just as important to fans are the deeper cuts.  Any time they get a little more spotlight is a good time.  “Queen of Spades” rocks regally, riffy and progressive.   “Boat on a River” is pretty authentic to the original, while “Too Much Time on My Hands” has some different keyboard flare.  Both are worthy inclusions.  This isn’t to say any of these versions are superior to the originals.  That’s impossible.  This is just to say they are enjoyable to listen to.

The bait to buy the re-recordings are two Damn Yankees songs:  “Coming of Age” and (of course) “High Enough”.  Styx have been known to perform “High Enough” in concert, but what are they like without Jack Blades and Ted Nugent?  Surprisingly good.  Styx can handle the singing, and James Young can riff and wail with the best of ’em.  “High Enough” in particular sounds great.  Lush and with more balls.

Interestingly enough, it looks like all the guys recorded their parts in different studios, all over the place.  Gowan was recorded in Toronto, and of interest to Rush fans is that Terry Brown co-engineered his parts.  The marvels of the modern world.

3/5 stars

 

 

REVIEW: Damn Yankees – Damn Yankees (1990)


Scan_20160525DAMN YANKEES – Damn Yankees (1990 Warner)

Now here is an album I haven’t played in a long time!

When the supergroup known as Damn Yankees first emerged in 1990, they quickly became my favourite new band.  Ted Nugent, Tommy Shaw (Styx), Jack Blades (Night Ranger) and drummer Michael Cartellone emerged with one of the hottest new albums of the summer:  Pure radio-ready hard rock, but with the integrity added by the Nuge himself.  All aboard!

(I like that Ted is in the credits also as “security”.  You can picture it.)

So what is Damn Yankees?  Light rock, Great Gonzos, or a mixture?  The answer is:  all of the above.

The predominant direction is radio-ready hard rock circa the time. Even though all these guys had been around for a while (especially Ted), if you didn’t know who they were it was easy to mistake them for the new hot band.  Their lyrics are geared to the young.

Dressed to kill and lookin’ dynamite,
With her high-laced stockings and her sweater so tight,
I asked her name,
She said her name was ‘Maybe’…

Oh come on guys!    Jack Blades was 36 years old when he sang that.  We already have one Gene Simmons.  Thankfully, the lead single “Coming of Age” was musically impeccable for hard pop rock.  Lyrically, there is nothing of any value here, just meaningless male drivel.  The Van-Hagar like licks of “Coming of Age” are enhanced by the aggressive lead guitar work of Terrible Ted, who probably thought the lyrics were pure poetry.

The bluesy riff of “Bad Reputation” screams Nugent, but the vocals of Blades and Shaw blend as if they have always been a vocal team.  Of course as we all know, Damn Yankees led to a long and very productive partnership for the two, with Shaw-Blades being a personal favourite album.  The most remarkable thing about Damn Yankees is indeed the blend of vocals.  Just listen to that bridge in the middle of “Bad Reputation”.  Two rock singers rarely complement each other as well as Shaw and Blades.  But just when you thought it was going too folksy, Ted returns with a fluttering blitzkreig of strings and (probably) freshly killed meat.

“Runaway” features some of Shaw’s great slide guitar work, on a mid-tempo rocker with an unforgettable anthemic chorus.  Damn Yankees is often forgotten for its guitar work.  Think about it though:  Tommy Shaw and Ted Nugent are two of America’s best from the old school.  While the songs are simple pop rock, the solos are simply awesome.

By the time fall 1990 rolled around, it was time to drop a ballad for a single:  “High Enough”.  In the year 1990 there were a number of acoustic ballads that were all very similar sounding:  “Silent Lucidity”, “More Than Words”, and “High Enough”.   There is no better way to describe “High Enough” than “sounds like summer 1990”.  Unfortunately it does not stand out or have any qualities that make it more memorable than the other ballads out that year.  The saccharine strings just do me in.  I get ballad-fatigue. And let’s not even talk about that awful music video.

The band’s namesake track “Damn Yankees” sounds like a Nugent song.  It has a chunky, ballsy riff, though nothing to write home to mother about.  Unfortunately the lyrics are terribly dated, the kind of pro-American intervention sentiment that went out fashion many years ago.  With references to Manuel Noriega and the Middle East, this is all much less glorious with the benefit of hindsight.  There’s a lesson to be learned there:  avoid overly politicizing your lyrics, young rockers.

For a better ballad than “High Enough”, check out side two’s opening track “Come Again”.  This one is old-school, sounding something like Styx’s “Boat on a River” colliding with the Nuge on “Stranglehold”.   It builds into a frenetic solo section that is just to die for, Nuge seemingly doing his best Eddie VH impression.  Then on “Mystified”, Ted brings the blues while Tommy gets down on the pedal steel.  This is a great little blues rock jam of the kind ZZ Top are comfortable with.  I’m certain Rev. Billy would approve of the Nuge’s blues licks, authentic as they come.

“Rock City” ain’t bad at all, accelerated for your pleasure and name-dropping Jimmy Page in the lyrics.  It’s not the heaviest song on the album — they save that for the end — but it’s definitely second.  There is little doubt, based on interviews with the band, that the heaviness came from Ted.  Let’s all take a moment now to thank Ted Nugent for rocking so damn hard.  Thank you, Mr. Nugent.  Penultimate track “Tell Me How You Want It” is a pretty good mid-tempo song, with classy vocals from Tommy and Jack.  Had they released more singles from the album, this one would have been up for the job.

And then finally…

A blues lick, and Ted speaking:  “Nice lick!  I have a feeling this is gonna be a rhythm and blues song…nice, real nice.  Tasty.  WAITAMINUTE!”

“Piledriver” is just a dumb sex song, but it’s also pure Gonzo Ted, the Ted you knew was hiding somewhere on this album.  You wanna hear Ted go friggin’ top gear for four and a half minutes?  “Piledriver”, baby!  Tommy and Jack on the backing vocals even drop an F-bomb!  Can you believe it?  They’re the nice guys of the band!  But let’s not forget Michael Cartellone on the drums, hammering relentlessly, not only keeping up with Great Gonzo but setting the freakin’ pace!  Even without headbanging along (strongly recommended), you’re exhausted by the end of the tune.

I say again, thank you Mr. Nugent.

As it turns out, Damn Yankees is still an entertaining listen 26 years later.  I didn’t properly appreciate the smoking guitars on it at the time.  Back then, I was interested in ballads and singles and catchy tunes.  Even so I still liked “Piledriver” back then…because it’s awesome.  The album’s real flaw is on the lyric sheet.  I know these guys can do better than some of these tracks.

3/5 stars

REVIEW: Vince Neil – Exposed (1993)

 

Scan_20160216

VINCE NEIL – Exposed (1993 Warner)

When Vince Neil finally unleashed his first solo album Exposed in 1993, it looked like he was the early winner in the great battle:  Vince vs. Motley.

As is par for a volatile band like Motley Crue, the acrimony behind the split was intense and overshadowed any music either party was about to come out with.  Even after reading Motley’s book The Dirt, it’s not really clear what happened.  Vince was complaining that he wasn’t into the new Motley music they were working on.  “Like 4th rate Physical Graffiti outtakes” he once commented in Metal Edge, with too much emphasis on keyboards and backing singers.  Crue, meanwhile, felt the lack of dedication coming from the singer.  He had missed a few rehearsals.  After driving through a torrential rainstorm making him late at the studio, he was confronted.  “We’re thinking about having new lead singer auditions again,” said Nikki Sixx to Vince Neil.  The band put out a bogus statement saying Neil was diverting his focus to race cars, and Vince was battling from the bottom again.

After working on one tune with the Damn Yankees (three out of four anyway, minus Ted Nugent) called “You’re Invited (But Your Friend Can’t Come)” for the opening song of the Encino Man soundtrack, it was time to put together a new band.  An early lineup consisted of ex-Ozzy Osbourne bassist Phil Soussan, but that didn’t last.  When Soussan left, newcomer Robbie “Ichabod” Crane (a nickname he pretty much stopped using immediately) switched from rhythm guitar to bass, while the legendary Steve Stevens of Billy Idol fame was the main shredder.  Vik Foxx from Enuff Z’nuff was hired on drums, and another newcomer named Dave Marshall took over the vacant rhythm guitar spot.  Vince wanted two guitars, unlike Motley’s one.

With the ex-Billy Idol axeman by his side, Vince Neil already had everything he needed to make an incredible album.  The help of Stevens, Soussan, and Tommy Shaw & Jack Blades from Damn Yankee meant he had a songwriting dream team.  Fired up and motivated to prove everybody in the music business wrong, Vince was in the zone, and the chemistry was working.  He also beat Motley to the punch by 11 months.

The last thing I expected from a new Vince Neil song would have been a six minute epic with more guitar action than Motley Crue had packed into six albums.  Vince was in great voice at this time, and his singing on this album is exemplary.  On every track, he sounds like he means it.  Crisply captured by producer Ron Nevison, the song is driven forth by the relentless Vik Foxx (sounding like he’s doing his best Rush impression) and the space-age technique of Steve Stevens.  It’s an exotic metal groove, with flash and tricks like you have never heard before.  I don’t know how Stevens does some of the things he does, but that’s why he’s the guitar hero and not me.  If record labels weren’t scared shitless of releasing a six minute single, then this should have been the single.

Instead “Sister of Pain” was the single, a song that does not make as strong an impression.  It’s a hard boned sleezy cock rocker in the Motley fashion, which is probably what they were going for.  Vince felt that since Motley were changing styles, it was up to him to keep the old Crue sound alive.  That’s “Sister of Pain”, a catchy and satisfactory rock single, although still five minutes due to the intense soloing. This is one of the tunes that Vince wrote with Shaw and Blades.

“Can’t Have Your Cake” has a neat slippery riff, and it too was used as a single.  This fits the niche of the “fast Motley rocker”, like (say) “Kickstart My Heart”, though it’s not as heavy.  Thankfully it’s a song to its own, thanks to Stevens’ creative licks.  I like “Fine, Fine Wine” better.  Vince is as dirty as ever, proving he doesn’t need Nikki Sixx to write a sleezy rock lyric.  It’s just a kicking groovy guitar song, perfect for playing air instruments to.

Stevens fans know his flamenco work is incredible.  He gets to show it off for the first 30 seconds of “The Edge”, finally a song about Vince’s supposed true passion — racing!  Not an instantaneous song in any way, “The Edge” has a lot going on but it’s worth the challenge.  This kind of technical rock was beyond Motley Crue before, but with guys like Steve Stevens, Vince was able to show them up a bit.  There’s more of Stevens’ incredible classical guitar on the ballad “Can’t Change Me”, a sentiment I have always identified with.  This is the kind of pop ballad that would have made Vince the king of radio only two years earlier.  Not surprisingly it’s a Tommy Shaw co-write, because that’s exactly who it sounds like.

Scan_20160216 (2)Nothing like a cover to kick off side two, and “Set Me Free” by the Sweet is basically the original “Kickstart my Heart”.  May as well go back to the original and amp it up a bit with some slippery Steve Stevens fretwork.  It’s a heavy, layered presentation of guitars and ass kicking drums, and we can certainly forgive Vince for putting a cover on his album.  Besides, the next track “Living is a Luxury” has a nocturnal, smoky vibe that makes it one of the most interesting cuts.  The jazzy guitar is like nothing on any Motley Crue album.

Then we’re down to a remake of “You’re Invited (But Your Friend Can’t Come)” from Encino Man.  Damn Yankees played on the original, and sonically and vocally, that is the one I prefer.  The album version of course has more guitars.  It’s too bad they couldn’t add that one in as a CD bonus track, but the Encino Man soundtrack was on Hollywood, not Warner.  Regardless of which version we’re listening to, this is still a dynamite blast of adrenaline that seems over way too soon.  I used to play the soundtrack version on repeat in the car.  Rewind and go again.

“Gettin’ Hard” is a great mid-paced rock tune, but what’s odd is that the lyrics in the booklet are nothing like the actual song, except for the choruses.  It’s as if they changed the words at the last minute but forgot to tell the people who print the CD sleeves!  A strange little oddity to go with a grooving cool song.  Out come the acoustics again for the last track, “Forever”, a really sweetly made ballad.  The layers of shimmery guitars make it a class above most ballads of this ilk.  It ends the album on a glowing nostalgic note.

Unfortunately for Vince, he was unable to follow this album with anything decent.  We realistically knew that Steve Stevens wasn’t going to hang around long, but what hurt Vince most was his ill-advised attempt to cross over, getting the Dust Brothers to produce.  1995’s Carved in Stone failed to make any impression whatsoever.  Meanwhile, his former cohorts in Motley Crue quietly cooked up a beast of an album with Bob Rock.  1994’s Motley Crue was about the only thing that could have topped Exposed.

4.5/5 stars

Scan_20160216 (3)

Scan_20160220 (5)

Part 5: The Dream Job

RECORD STORE TALES PART 5:  The Dream Job

Of all my highschool friends, there was only one who had a job that he enjoyed.  Peter worked at Steve’s TV, still pretty much the best video store in town.  All my other friends worked at the typical places.  One guy worked at the closest convenience store every weekend.  Two more worked in the McDonalds kitchen. A few more worked at rival fast food places.  All pretty typical for kids at age 16.

Peter on the other hand (who later became the best man at my wedding) had his wicked job.  Back then there wasn’t much to choose from, the biggest chain store was Jumbo Video.  Everything else was pretty crusty, except for Steve’s TV.  Steve’s started in the late 70’s.  Back then they had one room, one wall of videos (3/4 VHS and ¼ Betamax) and a small bin of video discs, the precursor of laserdisc.  They used to offer package deals:  Rent a VCR and five movies for a weekend for a special price.  Not too many people had VCRs back then.

The store grew and grew and relocated pretty close to home.  That’s where Peter worked during highschool, that and learning an electrical trade with his dad later on.   We used to call him “TV Pete” because TV seemed to be his big love back then, so working at Steve’s TV was totally appropriate.  Peter used to borrow movies from work, tape them, and bring them back the next day.  Peter always had copies of all the new releases, and a library hundred of titles big.

I first became interested in working in a record store in highschool.  There was a small record store in Kincardine, Ontario that sold a mix of CDs, LPs and cassettes.  I bought a couple titles there over the years, including Out of This World by Europe, and Judas Priest’s monstrous Painkiller.

I thought to myself, what a great summer job that would be.

Instead, during the fall of 1989 my dad told me to go into the local Zehrs store, and speak to a man named Don.  I went out and got myself a haircut.  It was the first time I had a hair cut in 5 years where I didn’t ask the barber to “leave the back long.”  I cut ‘er all off.  It was a bit of a blow, as my hair had become…well, not great, but it was long enough that it was my trademark.

Neck still itchy from the clippers, and wearing some ill-fitting dress pants, I walked into the Zehrs store.  The conversation was brief.  My dad must have told the guy that I was getting my hair cut, because he told me my hair was “fine”.  He outlined the requirements of the job, and asked me if I could start the next day.   I accepted.  I was employed!  I began plotting my next order from Columbia House.

During my tenure there I bought my first CD.  (Trash by Alice Cooper.)  Other albuims to follow were Fair Warning  by Van Halen, Damn Yankees, Slip of the Tongue (Whitesnake), the charity CD Stairway to Heaven / Highway to Hell, Black Sabbath’s We Sold Our Souls For Rock And Roll, Ozzy’s Live E.P., and the debut album by Badlands were all bought during the first few months with Zehrs money.

I didn’t like the hours, which interfered with the Thursday edition of the Pepsi Power Hour.  I still caught the Tuesday edition on most weeks, but this meant my metal intake was now cut in half!

It was a job.  That’s all it was.  It was something to keep my dad off my back and make money to spend on albums.  That was pretty much it.  Monthly, the Columbia House catalogue would arrive.  There was never a month when nothing was ordered.  I was trying to explore everything.

But that was nothing, next to the dream job.

1993. Fuck yeah.

In July 1994 my dad once again came to me.  “Go see the guy at the record store in the mall.  He wants to talk to you.”  I put on my cowboy boots (the closest thing I had to dress shoes) and walked over to the mall once again, the same fucking mall where the Zehrs was.  It was awesome.

The store had been open three years.  There had always been a place in the mall to buy music.  This new store was replacing a failed A&A Records, and many predicted the same thing would happen to the new store.  The young guy who started it came to my dad for help setting up an account.  My dad managed the Canada Trust at the mall, and because of that connection, I was the first person thought of when he needed a new part-timer.

The owner worked all day, all night, every day, and rarely even paid himself for three years to keep that place afloat.  He employed his brother and during the busy times hired part-timers.  Then he hit upon the idea of selling his own used CDs at the store.  He brought in a tray, marked it to about half price, and all the discs sold.  He worked up a pricing scheme and was soon buying and selling.  That’s when I came into the picture.

I’d already known about the used discs.  I bought Kiss My Ass for $11.99 there, the previous week.  It had just come out so I was fine with saving $10 on something I only really wanted a couple songs from.  Other than the used stuff though, everything there was overpriced.  It was one of those stores, the ones at the shitty malls with no selection and high prices.  That was all about to change and I got to be in on the ground floor.

I worked there in training for the whole summer, and by fall I was closing all by myself.  Those were the best nights.  Those were the nights when I got to pick the music myself.  We didn’t have many store play discs, and some albums were out of bounds anyway, but I gave a few a shot.  Jar of Flies by Alice In Chains was in the player pretty much every night.  I also found that I really liked David Lee Roth’s “multi-faceted” latest, Your Filthy Little Mouth.  The only problem:  We had a stack of 10 of ’em, and nobody wanted any of them.

The store owner was a shrewd businessman but musically clueless.  While he was playing Anita Baker and Don Henley, kids were coming in asking for Pigface, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, and Ministry.  He ordered a pile of David Lee Roth discs, in 1994.  What the hell was he thinking?  He did the same thing again with Motley Crue’s latest.  There must have been 20 of them sitting there.

Very quickly in my tenure there, I picked up many treasures.  Rush Chronicles, a King’s X / Faith No More split live bootleg, numerous rare singles, and deleted back catalogue titles like Twisted Sister’s You Can’t Stop Rock and Roll.  We had the catalogues in front of us, so any time something decent was deleted, I made sure I snapped it up.  I already had a lot of this stuff on cassette, but cassettes don’t last and I wanted to replace them all.

During my time at the record store, I pretty much accomplished that.  If you come back, I’ll share some of the cool treasures that you may never see yourselves.