tommy shaw

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

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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: Styx – Regeneration Volume I (2010)

STYX – Regeneration Volume I (2010 Eagle Rock)

I know what you’re thinking.  “Styx re-recordings?  Why the  hell do I need those?”

You don’t.  That’s why they added a new song (“Difference in the World”) exclusive to this set.

Initially, the EP Regeneration Volume I was sold exclusively online and at Styx concerts, but it was reissued with Volume II to regular retail as a double CD set.  Volume II has its own exclusives, which will be discussed in a separate review.  Aside from the cleaner sound, the most obvious difference is the more modern drumming by Todd Sucherman.  Original drummer John Panozzo had his own style and the difference is obvious.  That’s neither good nor bad; just an observation.

“Difference in the World” is a melancholy but good song.  Styx have a lot of good songs.  Tommy Shaw wrote another one.  There you go.

“The Grand Illusion” features singer Lawrence Gowan on an old Dennis DeYoung classic.  Considering how long Gowan has been with Styx now (almost 20 years!), it is justifiable to re-record old songs with him on a low-key release such as this.  It’s harder to justify Tommy Shaw’s “Sing For the Day” and “Fooling Yourself” which are damn near note-for-note accurate to the originals.  Tommy’s orchestral re-imaginings on his solo live album Sing For the Day! are a lot more interesting.  The biggest difference are Gowan’s backing vocals.  Put these versions in a Styx shuffle and they won’t be too obtrusive.

James Young takes the lead on “Lorelei”.  Of the re-recordings, “Lorelei” is clearly the best.  Dennis DeYoung sang the original, but James sings it live today since he’s the co-writer.  Doing a studio version with James is more than justified.   “Crystal Ball” is still as epic as it ever was, but has more edge with modern production.  The guitar solo is to die for.

What about “Come Sail Away”?  Unnecessary and perhaps detrimental to this EP.  Doing it live without Dennis is one thing.  It’s not a song you want to leave a Styx concert without hearing.  Gowan’s fine, but redoing this one in the studio can never live up to the original in any way, and you’re digging your own hole by even trying.  Magic cannot be recreated, only imitated.

3/5 stars

REVIEW: Shaw Blades – Hallucination (1995 Japanese import)

SHAW BLADES – Shaw Blades (1995 Warner Japan)

Ever wonder what Damn Yankees would have sounded like without Ted Nugent?  Possibly, a little like Shaw Blades.  In 1995, the Nuge returned to his solo career with Spirit of the Wild.  Tommy Shaw and Jack Blades had already formed a successful songwriting partnership (with an Aerosmith hit under their belts) and so together they continued.  Damn Yankees drummer Michael Cartellone joined them, but for the most part it’s expert Journey-man Steve Smith — one of the smoothest drummers in rock.

Expect acoustic rock and ballads with impeccable harmonies.  Boring, you say?  Not at all; not when you have a batch of songs this strong.  Opener “My Hallucination” is a lament for the 1960s, with an electric guitar backing up Shaw and Blades’ perfect vocals.  Those two guys can hit some notes.  “I’ll Always Be With You” is more like campfire rock, a summetime gem and ode to innocent love.  There are some sweet Def Leppard chords tucked in there.  Third in line, the strong “Come to Be My Friend” gets a touch psychedelic but it’s the smoking acoustic soloing that will blow you away.  Either that or the insanely good chorus harmonies.

“Don’t Talk to Me Anymore” is the first song you could call an outright ballad even though it’s a soft album.  It’s lightly arranged with a less is more attitude.  Then things get upbeat on “I Stumble In”, an outstanding memorable head-nodder.  Journey fans will recognize their favourite drummer’s always fascinating tom tom work.  Moving on to the album’s second true ballad, “Blue Continental”, a laid-back Southern vibe permeates.  It’s logically followed by “Down that Highway”, upbeat but stripped to the basics.  A couple acoustic guitars, two voices, some tambourine and accents (fiddle, keys) and you have a song!

The electric guitar comes out for “How You Gonna Get Used to This”, one of the less remarkable songs compared to the catchier acoustic tunes.  The mandolin makes an appearance on “The Night Goes On”, another quiet but excellent ballad.  “I Can’t Live Without You” draws things to an end, but is also unremarkable.  Among diamonds, it fails to shine bright enough.  Fortunately, the ending it was preceding is a short track simply called “The End”, which reprises themes from prior songs, tying up the album with a nice bow.

This album produced no commercial singles, but there were two extra tracks, exclusive to the Japanese CD.  “How Does It Feel” brings back the electric guitar, but it’s more interesting than the other electric songs on the album.  It could be a grower.  “Straight Down the Line” is the gem.  It’s the fastest song of the whole bunch, upbeat but light, and a blast in the car.  Tommy’s intricate little lightning fast guitar hook is a tasty delight.  Tracks like this are why collectors really seek out Japanese imports.  They are their own rewards.

Any version of the debut Shaw Blades is going to be thoroughly enjoyed.  Get one.

4.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Styx – Caught in the Act – Live (1984)

For Deke’s review at Arena Rock, click here!

 

STYX – Caught in the Act – Live (1984 A&M, 2018 BGO reissue)

“Hey everybody it’s Music Time!”

Sorta, anyway!  Styx were just about toast after “Mr. Roboto“, and Tommy Shaw didn’t want to sing any more songs about androids.  (Mars, however, was fine.)  He departed to check out some Girls With Guns, but not before Styx put out one more product before hiatus.  That would be the traditional double live album, which was actually Styx’s first.

Styx have lots of live albums now, but only two with Dennis DeYoung.  Caught in the Act is essential for a few key reasons.  It sounds great although there are clearly overdubs in places.  It is the only one with the classic lineup of DeYoung/Shaw/James “JY” Young/Chuck Panozzo/John Panozzo.  And it has plenty of classic Styx songs that still shake the radio waves today.

Like many live albums, Caught in the Act contained one new song.  Dennis DeYoung wrote the uppity “Music Time”, a very New Wave single without much of the punch of old Styx.  Shaw was so nauseated that he barely participated in the music video.  “Music Time” isn’t one of Styx’s finest songs.  It’s passable but clearly a misstep.  No wonder it was a final straw of sorts for Tommy Shaw.

With that out of the way, on with the show.  Styx opened the set with “Mr. Roboto”, a mega hit that got a bad rap over the years until nostalgia made it OK to like it again.  Fortunately only two songs from Kilroy Was Here were included, the ballad “Don’t Let It End” being the other.  Live, “Roboto” pulses with energy, far more than you would expect.  The disco-like synthetic beats complement the techno-themed lyrics.  Every hook is delivered with precision.  With the human factor that comes out in a live recording, “Roboto” could be one of those songs that is actually better live.

Styx have always been a diverse act, and this album demonstrates a few sides of the band.  Shaw and Young tended to write rockers, and “Too Much Time On My Hands”, “Miss America”, “Snowblind”, “Rockin’ the Paradise” and especially “Blue Collar Man” are prime examples of the best kind.  Long nights, impossible odds…yet a killer set of rock tunes.  Then there are the ballads.  “Babe” is a slow dancing classic, and “The Best of Times” is even better.  Finally, the tunes that verge on progressive epics: “Suite Madame Blue”, “Crystal Ball” and “Come Sail Away” have the pompous complexity that punk rockers hated so much.  This album is a shining live recreation of some of rock’s most beloved music.

The 2018 CD reissue on BGO Records sounds brilliant with depth, and has a nice outer slipcase.  You’ll also get a nice thick full colour booklet with photos and an essay that goes right up to 2017’s The Mission.  BGO is a well known, respected label.  This reissue is a must.

4.5/5 stars

 

 

REVIEW: Styx – Come Sail Away: The Styx Anthology (2004)

STYX – Come Sail Away: The Styx Anthology (2004 A&M)

Styx need to get their albums remastered and reissued pronto.  In the meantime, you can Come Sail Away with The Styx Anthology.

The great thing about the Styx Anthology is that it covers virtually all Styx history, even the first four albums on Wooden Nickel records.  Each one of those early albums is represented by a track (two for Styx II).  Those early albums had some good material on them that usually only diehards get to hear.  “Best Thing” and “You Need Love” are bright and rocking, just like you expect from Styx.  “Winner Take All” and “Rock & Roll Feeling” are consistent toe-tappers.  The jovial harmonies, and lead vocals (by Dennis DeYoung and James “JY” Young) on these tracks could easily be mistaken for later, more famous Styx.  Don’t forget the original version of “Lady” from Styx II, their first big ballad.  Styx’s flair for the dramatic was there right from the first.  (Remember “Lady” as performed by the Dan Band in the movie Old School?)

Shortly thereafter Styx signed with A&M.  1975’s Equinox boasted hits galore.  You should know “Light Up” and “Lorelei”.  But Equinox was their last with founding guitarist John Curulewski.  He was replaced by a guitarist with prodigious talent and a voice to go with it:  Tommy Shaw.  Shaw’s “Crystal Ball” is one of the best songs from the album of the same title.  “Mademoiselle” and “Shooz” are not far behind.

Styx enjoyed an abnormally long period of great, classic albums in a row.  After Crystal Ball came The Grand Illusion, Pieces of Eight, Cornerstone and Paradise Theatre.  With a solid lineup they continued to crank out radio staples.  Their music became grander and more conceptual thanks to Dennis DeYoung.  Tommy Shaw and JY tended to provide balance with rockier songs.  Songs like Dennis’ “The Grand Illusion” are balanced out by Young’s “Miss America” and Shaw’s “Renegade”.  Sure, Shaw could write a ballad or two, but his are more rootsy like the acoustic “Boat on a River”.

Through “Come Sail Away”, “Babe”, “The Best of Times” and “Too Much Time on My Hands”, it is impossible to understate how hit-laden this CD set is.  “Blue Collar Man”, “Rockin’ the Paradise”…it’s seemingly endless!

Until it ends, right after “Mr. Roboto”.  Though their lineup was stable, Styx were volatile.  DeYoung was fired at one point for being too controlling.  Shaw threatened to quit if the song “First Time” was ever released as a single (it wasn’t and it’s not on here).  It came to a head for real with “Roboto”, from 1983’s Kilroy Was Here.  Though it went to #3, the tour did poorly and the band were not happy with DeYoung and his rock operatics.  Tommy Shaw stated that he couldn’t get into songs about robots (long before he wrote an album about Mars).  The Styx Anthology cuts you a break by not subjecting you to their last single before splitting, “Music Time”.

When Styx reformed in 1990 it was without Shaw, who was doing very well in the supergroup Damn Yankees.  He was replaced by singer/guitarist Glen Burtnik.  Burtnik’s single “Love is the Ritual” is a jarring change.  The seven years between it and “Roboto” are audible, as Styx forged a clear hard rock sound with the single.  Sporting synth bass and shouted “Hey!’s”, you couldn’t get further from the core Styx sound than “Love is the Ritual”.  With the new member singing, it’s hard to hear any similarity to Styx at all.  Dennis’ “Show Me the Way” has proven to be a more timeless song.  Although it resonated with Americans at the time of the Gulf War, today it is just a great song about keeping the faith.

Styx split again, but reformed with Shaw in 1995.  Unfortunately, founding drummer John Panozzo died from years of alcohol abuse and was replaced by the incredible Todd Sucherman.  “Dear John” is Sucherman’s first appearance on the disc, a tribute to Panozzo.  The somber Tommy Shaw ballad (from 1997’s Return to Paradise) simply had to be included on a Styx anthology.  The only Styx studio album ignored on the set is 1999’s Brave New World, and rightfully so.  Instead we leap ahead in time for the final song, featuring yet another lineup change, and one of the most significant.  Dennis DeYoung was let go and replaced by Canadian solo star Lawrence Gowan.  This has proven to be a fortuitous undertaking for both Styx and Gowan.  Gowan plays keyboards on “One With Everything” (from 2003’s Cyclorama), an epic six minute Tommy Shaw progressive workout.  It’s a brilliant song, and a perfect indication that for Styx, a whole new chapter had opened.*

Do yourself a favour. Go and buy Styx’s new album The Mission, and put The Styx Anthology in the basket too.  Then enjoy, and congratulate yourself for a great start on your Styx collection!

5/5 stars

* Two more lineup changes:  when bassist Chuck Panozzo fell ill, he became a part time bassist for Styx.  Glen Burtnik returned on bass this time and played on Cyclorama.  When he left again, he was replaced by Ricky Phillips from Coverdale-Page.

 

#701: Amazon You Bastards

A big shout out to Derek Deke for bein’ around.

GETTING MORE TALE #701: Amazon You Bastards

This is the story of how 18 cents cost me $21.63.

I’m always on the lookout for cheap Star Wars figures.  I collect the 6″Black Series exclusively.  I keep my core collection sealed, but any time I can buy a double for cheap, I go for it.  May as well have an open one for play display.

The other night I was bored and browsing Amazon, as you do.  I noticed they had a couple Black Series figs for under $20 — usually a guaranteed threshold for buying a double.  I picked up Lando (Billy Dee Williams version) for $12.46 for my sister last week.   This week I noticed Liam Neeson, err, Qui-Gon Jinn, for $12.08.  After consulting my sister I decided to pull the trigger.  Qui-Gon isn’t the best character and for a Jedi he is pretty bland, but I like the little toy lightsabers.  He also comes with an extra hand that you can swap out to give him a Force-push kind of pose.

(I like the ability to easily swap out hands.  Dr. Kathryn does not.  Look for a future story on this called “Extra Hands”.)

“Go for it!” advised Dr. Kathryn and so I looked for something else to qualify for free shipping.  I went to my wishlist and remembered Tommy Shaw’s Girls With Guns album.  I’ve loved the title track for eons, but the CD was always somewhat rare.  In fact it ended up on a very primitive version of the old Holy Grail list.  It turns out that the quality label Beat Goes On Records has done a reissue along with the album What If in a single package.  I recently picked up BGO’s reissue of Styx’s Caught In The Act – Live and I was very happy with the audio and packaging.  I added Girls With Guns / What If to my cart at the price of $22.74, a solid buy.

Total:  $34.82.  A measly 18 cents short of free shipping.

Well, fuck!

There was only one copy of Tommy Shaw left in stock.  I wanted to keep it in the cart.  Only one thing to do.  Add another item to the cart to get free shipping.

I browsed and browsed a bit more.  Lots of Black Series figures under $20 (mostly from Rogue One), but I had doubles already.  There were a few just over $20 and ultimately I decided to buy a second Imperial Range Trooper at $21.63, far exceeding the cost of the original Qui-Gon figure that set me off on this particular shopping quest.  And here’s the kicker!  At first I decided I didn’t want to get any figures from Solo.  There are so many Black Series characters now that I had to draw a line somewhere.  But I broke when some of the new figures turned out so good, and Range Trooper is one of them.  He’ll be joining the rest of my opened Imperial troopers soon.

But:  Fuck you, Amazon!  I bet you have banks of computers spitting out algorithms to keep me just under the $35 minimum for free shipping!  Weird prices like $12.08…you think you’re getting a deal but then you buy three fuckin’ things!

I’m on to you, Amazon….

REVIEW: Styx – Styxworld Live 2001

STYX – Styxworld Live 2001 (2001 Sanctuary)

There are plenty of live Styx albums, the majority with current singer Lawrence Gowan.  2001’s Styxworld is as entertaining as the title implies.  It really does represent the world of Styx:  oldies, solo hits, and obscure tracks too.  Because the Styx lineup in 2001 included guitarist/singer Glen Burtnik, there are a couple songs he wrote that Styx don’t play anymore.

Styx have had a credible career, post-Dennis DeYoung.  Adding Gowan, a solo star in Canada, was a brilliant move.   Though Gowan and DeYoung don’t sound alike, Lawrence is capable of performing Dennis’ more dramatic hits like “Come Sail Away”.   You wouldn’t want that song dropped from the set!  But Gowan also adds his own solo material:  “A Criminal Mind” (from 1985’s Strange Animal) is more than welcome.  A great song is a great song, and “A Criminal Mind” has since become a part of Styx.

Credit should be heaped for including lesser-heard classics like “Boat on a River” in the set, just as good as any of the missing songs.  You’ll also hear “Rocking the Paradise”, “Miss America”, “Sing for the Day”, “Crystal Ball”, “Half-Penny, Two-Penny” and “Lorelei” (James “JY” on lead vocals).  Essentially the setlist was whittled down to songs co-written by Tommy Shaw or James Young, with “Come Sail Away” being the only solo DeYoung-written song.

You could fill a whole other album with missing songs like “The Grand Illusion” or “Renegade” but what makes Styxworld strong are the songs included in their place.  Like it or not “Love is the Ritual” was a minor hit for Burtnik-era Styx, and an effort seems to have been made to include everybody’s material.  A big hit (though not by Styx!) is “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough” by Patty Smyth and Don Henley…written by Smyth and Burtnik.  It’s cool to have a Styx version though it’s shortened for the stage.  Of course there’s “Criminal Mind” by Gowan, and even the ballad “High Enough” by Tommy Shaw’s Damn Yankees.  Though it seems like a ballad-heavy set, there is plenty of rock and roll.

Check out Styxworld for a taste of this period of Styx history.  If you like Gowan, it’s a win.

4/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Styx – The Mission (2017)

STYX – The Mission (2017 Universal)

Did anyone in 2017 expect Styx to come out with one of the best albums of the year?  Even though Styx have successfully carried on with Lawrence (But You Can Call Me Larry) Gowan on keys and vocals, nobody really predicted this!  Yet here it is:  The Mission, surely one of the best albums of the year so far,* and the best Styx in decades.

Here’s another unexpected twist:  The Mission is a concept album about colonizing Mars!  It has a coherent story and recurring hooks.  In many ways The Mission sounds like a lost album from Styx’s progressive rock heyday.  But you wouldn’t guess that if you only heard the Gowan-sung lead single “Gone Gone Gone”.  Although it’s about a rocket launch, you might not catch that on first listen.  The year is 2033.  “Light it up, let’s get this show on the road!”  This hard rocker came out of nowhere as one of the big surprises this summer.

“Hundred Million Miles From Home” (vocals by Tommy Shaw) has a funkier 70s groove.**  When the band harmonizes together, it sounds like vintage Styx.   “Hundred Million Miles” is a great song and also fairly accurate.  Mars was 100 million miles away from Earth as recently as the 2012 opposition.  Problems happen on “Trouble at the Big Show” (vocals by James “JY” Young), a slower groove with killer bluesy guitar work.  This moves into the ballad “Locomotive”, about the brave pilot of the ship Khedive.  Shaw pours passion into it, as he does the next one “Radio Silence”.  Just as interesting as the actual music is the spacey backing sounds.  It certainly adds atmosphere to an excellent vintage sounding song.  “Radio Silence” recalls some of Shaw’s 70s hits like “Boat on a River” at times.

Gowan returns to the microphone on the lovely piano ballad “The Greater Good”.  It sounds like quintessential Styx; hit quality material with soul.  Things start to get upbeat again on “Time May Bend” (another Gowan vocal).  If you’re not familiar with Lawrence Gowan, he is not a Dennis DeYoung clone, sounding closer to Steve Hogarth of Marillion.  (He even looks a little like “H”.)  Listen for a subtle musical “S.O.S.” signal in the backing track.

There are musical segues and radio voices between some tracks, but  “Red Storm” is the next full song. It’s a very progressive song with all the trimmings.  It’s based on Tommy Shaw’s excellent acoustic work, and it paints a picture.  The crew of the Khedive must brave a dust storm on the surface of Mars.  “Carry what you can, there’s no turning back, gonna make it to the mothership.”  There are avante-garde flashes of guitar noise that emulates the squeals of a radio, or perhaps metal on metal.  Then a rocking riff and solo…”Red Storm” has it all.

Gowan absolutely proves his mettle on the piano opus “Khedive”.  The blur of piano recalls classical compositions, and the guitar solo is pure Queen.  The minimal vocals continue the story:  “Onwards!  Onwards!”  Then we revisit the sounds of the 80s on “The Outpost”, the triumphant conclusion to the story.  The 80s synth and beats remind of the classic “Mr. Roboto” period of Styx, but it rocks solidly too.  Listen for a reprise of the “Overture” music from the start for the album.  Finally “Mission to Mars” is the denouement, a bright and lively end.

The Mission is brilliant for a number of reasons.  First and foremost — great songs.  You will play The Mission over and over, simply because it has great songs, as good as the days of old.  Second, although Lawrence Gowan has his stamp all over the album, it sounds like Styx and nobody else.  Having Gowan more involved is a good thing.  He has a 40 year career in Canada, and he didn’t have enough time on the Cyclorama (2003) album.  But this sounds way more like Styx than Cyclorama did.  Finally, this album is loaded with incredible playing by all the members.  This is easily the best lineup Styx have had since Kilroy Was Here (1983).***    Fans of the guitar (both electric and acoustic) will find many moments of musical ecstasy.

For Styx, this is mission accomplished!

5/5 stars

* One of the best album covers too.  Is that a port hole, or a turntable?  You decide.  

** Bassist Chuck Panozzo plays the funky bass on “Hundred Million Miles From Home”, his only appearance.  Chuck, the other original member besides JY, is only able to make sporadic appearances with Styx due to his battle with AIDS.  Ricky Phillips plays the rest of the bass parts, meaning Styx have two official bassists!

*** Lawrence Gowan (piano/vocals), Tommy Shaw (guitar/vocals), James “JY” Young (guitar/vocals), Todd Sucherman (drums), Ricky Phillips & Chuck Panozzo (bass)

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