Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Rock x 3: New Albums from The Sheepdogs, Los Lobos, and Keith Richards

Future Nostalgia (Warner), The Sheepdogs new album, could be considered classic rock for the 21st Century. It’s an album that has borrowed the template of classic Seventies rock music and re-fashioned it for a new audience. All the elements of Seventies music are on Future Nostalgia, minus the dread power-ballads. The Sheepdogs have written an album close to their musical hearts: a hybrid of Southern rock and Canadian mainstream rock once served by groups such as April Wine and The Guess Who.

Future Nostalgia launches with "I'm Gonna Be Myself," a song destined to express the freedom with which this band operates artistically. It's a healthy attitude uninhibited by corporate and critical expectations. Remember when this band appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine? They hit the mainstream rock audience with the five-track EP, Five Easy Pieces, released in 2011. At that time the band made frequent appearances on television (Late Night with Jimmy Fallon) and opened for Kings of Leon on their 2011 tour across North America. The following year they made a strong appearance at the South By South West (SXSW) music festival in the spring and released their third full-length album by the end of the summer. In 2012, the band won three Juno Awards including Best New Group and they even played the roof of the CBC Broadcast Centre in Toronto.

By September, The Sheepdogs released a new album produced by Patrick Carney. When I reviewed that record I wrote that the last track "captures a free-spirited man headed for the West Coast toward warmer climes." One member of the band decided to take the offer; guitarist Leot Hanson who quit the group in July 2014. Ewan Currie principal songwriter and leader of The Sheepdogs asked his brother Shamus to fill in. The band continued to tour and commit to a new album, but only under their terms. So in an effort to block out all the "noise" of the music business, Currie and The Sheepdogs escaped to a cottage near Stoney Lake, Ontario in the province's beautiful region known as the Kawarthas. They were able to write and record the eighteen songs that make up Future Nostalgia, and the result is a first-rate rock album that is confident, accessible and slightly experimental. Highlights include the aforementioned opening track, the inspired "Help Us All" and the closing medley "Where I Can Roam" featuring six tunes segued together. A couple of acoustic ballads grace the album plus one instrumental "Jim Sullivan" that sounds influenced by Pink Floyd. In fact, the music on this record has traces of the Allman Brothers Band and The Guess Who, which is not a crutch of imitation. Future Nostalgia is a link to the ghosts of rock music past in which The Sheepdogs feel truly connected.

Los Lobos is a band that’s never been afraid to stretch itself musically while tempering their audience’s expectations for good quality rock music peppered with East L.A. Tex-Mex music. But the like The Sheepdogs who needed to escape to a quiet cottage to write music, Los Lobos chose to challenge themselves in the studio by giving themselves a deadline to come up with 11 new songs from scratch. The result is Gates Of Gold (429 Records), the band’s 20th album since 1976, not including the soundtrack to the 1987 Richie Valens biopic La Bamba that launched the band into the mainstream. Three decades later, Los Lobos has not lost its streetwise grit or its East L.A. zeal on their latest album.

Gates Of Gold opens with the edgy “Made to Break Your Heart” with an extended intro and exceptional guitar solo from Cesar Rosas whose outstanding work on this album makes him one of the unsung guitarists in music today. He has full control of his sound and his powerful phrasing as a soloist stops you in your tracks. But like many of their recent albums, Los Lobos still aims to please so what starts out as a heavy rock record is quickly tempered by two songs beautifully rendered in Spanish, “Poquito Para Aqui” and “La Tumba Sera el Final” which was written by Francisco Vidal. The band winds out successfully on “Too Small Heart” and offers up a spiritual of sorts, on the closer “Magdalena.” The variety of songs on this record doesn’t break any new ground for Los Lobos per se, but it does reaffirm the group’s importance in the history of American rock music without the glitter of commercialism. Now into their early 60’s, the members of Los Lobos haven’t taken their fans or their muse for granted. The critics seem to have agreed by nominating the band for entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Now 72 years-of-age, Keith Richards shows a remarkable ability to stay loose in his “senior” years. So many jokes have been made about his health and look over the years people seem to forget that he’s one of rock’s elder statesman who still tours with The Rolling Stones, albeit every few years. But as a musician Richards has never really taken a “solo-career” very seriously, so it comes as no surprise that he’s only released three albums under his own name since 1988. Crosseyed Heart (Mindless/Universal) released on September 18th was as much a surprise as it was a revelation in rock music history. But it works because Richards hasn’t any expectations to meet on past performances. His musical world is an open book: blues, folk songs, country and even jazz standards grace the album which may not move the music any further but it does reflect his maturity in fine style. Highlights include “Trouble,” “Heartstopper,” “Substantial Damage” and the duet with Norah Jones called “Illusion.” Richards’s cover of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene” is a nice enough version but I prefer the boogie number “Blues in the Morning” for its gritty, off-the-floor groove. Crosseyed Heart is collection of songs within Richards' comfort zone. It’s well played, sonically honest and unpretentious, but isn’t that why we love Keef in the first place?

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra. He's just finished Frank Zappa FAQ: All That's Left to Know About the Father of Invention (Backbeat Books) to be released in 2016.

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