An Undiscovered Guitar God, a Remake, a Reissue, and a Future Classic

An Undiscovered Guitar God, a Remake, a Reissue, and a Future Classic

Written by Tom Gibbs

Walter Trout  Ordinary Madness

Walter Trout is a blues survivor, and will turn seventy next March. He started playing in the late sixties, and spent the next two-and-a-half decades on the road, playing with the likes of Big Mama Thornton, Joe Tex, and John Lee Hooker throughout the conclusion of the seventies. And then spent time up until the early nineties with Canned Heat and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, before finally breaking out on his own. That time on the road was hard-earned, and Trout suffered through various addictions, along with a drinking problem that required a liver transplant with multiple surgeries that darn near killed him. To say that he’s paid his dues is a serious understatement, and Trout stated in a 2018 European radio interview that the only thing that saved him in his descent into alcohol and substance abuse was an encounter with Carlos Santana, and the sage advice he offered to help get on the road towards recovery.

Trout formed The Walter Trout Band in 1990, and has lived and performed mostly in Scandinavia and throughout Europe since, where he has a huge following. He’s played on countless records over the course of his career, with eight studio albums under the WTB banner, and he has five albums under the name of Walter Trout and the Radicals. His new album, Ordinary Madness, is his eleventh studio album performing simply as Walter Trout, and in Europe, many of his records have sold in excess of 100,000 copies. He appears regularly on many European-based blues magazine awards lists, and his face has graced the covers of many European-based blues and guitar magazines. Despite all this, he’s a virtual unknown here in his native country. If there’s any justice at all in the music world, the superb blues-rock of Ordinary Madness should change all that.

Most of the songs reflect on Trout’s own ordeals, as well as telling stories that deal with the human condition. On the title track, “Ordinary Madness,” Trout sings about the madness we all experience in our everyday lives to an impressive blues vamp; Trout’s voice isn’t an exceptional instrument, but you can sense a certain road-weariness in it that serves the music well. His Fender Strat, on the other hand, does most of the talking; on the solo midway through the track, it truly sings and Trout wrings every level of expressiveness from it. “Heartland” tells the tale of a young girl leaving her home for a life on the road, with a thrilling concluding guitar solo. “All Out of Tears” is the musical centerpiece of the album, and has Walter Trout giving his impressions of an oft-explored blues meditation; the center and concluding solos are among the very best on the entire album. And Trout shows that he’s no dinosaur, and that he has a great sense of humor in touch with modern culture, with the tune “OK Boomer,” with its refrain of “I like my music loud, I’m a geriatric, and I’m proud! I don’t care what you say, I’m a Boomer, and I’m OK!” His backing band, consisting of guitarist Anthony Grisham, bassist Johnny Griparic, drummer Michael Leasure, and Teddy “Zig Zag” Andreadis on harmonica and keys, are crack musicians and provide the perfect backing for Walter Trout’s guitar leads.

Walter Trout plays a pair of ‘73 Fender Strats and uses Mesa Boogie amps exclusively, and his guitar tone is sublime. The 24/96 sound of this album as streamed via Qobuz was absolutely superb as it played through my PrimaLuna tube amp and Zu Audio Omen loudspeakers — tubes, blues, and compression-driver loudspeakers are definitely a match made in heaven. Ordinary Madness comes very highly recommended — I can’t believe that it’s taken me this long to find out about Walter Trout, and I’ll definitely be digging into his back catalogue. And if you’re into vinyl, there’s a translucent red double LP available [here] on Trout’s website. Ordinary Madness is not to be missed!

Provogue Records, CD/LP (download/streaming [24/96] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, Pandora, Deezer, TuneIn)


Angel Olsen  Whole New Mess

Angel’s Olsen’s 2019 release and fifth overall studio album, All Mirrors, was released to critical acclaim, and peaked at number 52 on the Billboard charts, which is a pretty good accomplishment for an indie artist. The song selection — the album came on the heels the breakup of a longstanding relationship — consisted of Olsen’s vocals with her guitar and synth accompaniments, and was augmented by drums, additional synths, and a fourteen-piece string orchestra on many of the tunes. And the songs were definitely outstanding, with most of them wearing well with repeat listens. The album was apparently intended to be more of a barebones affair to reflect the somewhat depressing nature of the songs, but once the tapes got rolling and the string section appeared, Olsen was all in, and the results speak for themselves in songs that mostly deal with love, loss, and the ambivalence of our lives.

So it comes as no surprise that in the midst of the great pandemic, she decided to revisit All Mirrors, stripping the songs down to just the guitar and vocal originals. The result is her new album, Whole New Mess, which has taken the core group of tunes and reworked many of them — even to the point of changing some of the titles, and adding in a couple of new songs for good measure. And not all the synths have been abandoned either, though the vocals are not as purely recorded as on the original, with some additional processing and effects added. Nonetheless, the results are equally striking, even with the stark quality of the vocals and the spare instrumentation. There’s actually very little in Whole New Mess that bears much of a resemblance to All Mirrors, at all.

Most of the vocals throughout have some degree of echo and reverb added, and it gives the stripped-down presentation of the songs a very haunting sort of quality. And her soprano has a very waifish quality to it, almost as though her vocals have been sprinkled with fairy dust (or Angel dust?!). In “Too Easy (Bigger Than Us)” she sings, “Some things happen for a reason, cancel all these plans I’m dreaming, you walked in and now I feel I’m not alone.” The dissolution of that relationship left an awfully big hole in her life; but when compared to the version of the song on All Mirrors, the previous version seems much less desperate or evocative than the current, stripped-down version. In fact, that’s an undercurrent that runs through Angel Olsen’s body of work; it’s amazing how different versions of the same song from her can seem both uplifting in one reading and filled with disillusionment in the next. The song from which the previous album took its title, “(We Are All Mirrors),” is probably the surrealistic peak of a very surreal record. “Standin’, facin’, all mirrors are erasin’, losin’ beauty, at least at times it knew me” — the image Angel Olsen (or any of us) is seeing in the mirror isn’t always the true reflection of who we really are — or were.

Whole New Mess is both a difficult and simultaneously beautiful album, and the duality of the songs leaves the listener with plenty of room to find his (or her) own meaning; taking a listen to the previous release, All Mirrors, is pretty much required listening here, and could either clear things up significantly, or compound the confusion. Regardless, the 24 bit/44.1 kHz digital files from Qobuz made for superior listening, despite the relatively lo-fi approach of the album. YMMV, but I found Whole New Mess very enjoyable. Recommended.

Jagjaguar, CD/LP (download/streaming [24/44.1] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)

Elliott Smith  Elliott Smith: Expanded 25th Anniversary Edition 

Singer/songwriter Elliott Smith is another of the many performers who made something of a splash, but then died much too early. But he’s made a tremendous impression on many new artists in the years since his death; the number of artists who credit Smith as an influence on their styles is extensive. He’s often been described as something of a modern day Nick Drake — another very influential artist who died much too young. While their vocal styles and guitar playing techniques are quite similar, Smith’s lyrical rawness is often in pretty stark contrast to the more poetic leanings of Nick Drake. And while Drake came to true prominence many years after his death, Elliott Smith was on the cusp of his big commercial breakthrough when he was found dead of multiple stab wounds in 2003 at age 34. The official police inquiry was “inconclusive,” and it was never determined if Smith was indeed murdered, or perhaps died at his own hand, and with the passing of years, the investigation will likely never be reopened.

His breakthrough album was Elliott Smith, his second studio effort and his first after being signed to the Kill Rock Stars label. The album was a mostly sparsely orchestrated affair, with many of the songs consisting of nothing more than Smith’s almost whispery vocals and his acoustic guitar accompaniment. The album has been often compared to Nick Drake’s final album, Pink Moon, which was the most stark and sparely instrumented of an all-too-brief three album career. Nick Drake is believed to have died of an accidental overdose of prescription anti-depressants; Elliott Smith also struggled with depression, and also had alcohol and substance abuse problems, which definitely contributed to the very austere nature of many of his songs. Elliott Smith: Expanded 25th Anniversary Edition, offers newly remixed versions of all twelve songs from the original album release, and there’s no bonus material in terms of unreleased songs or alternate takes. But there is an entire disc’s worth of previously unreleased live material from a September, 1994 date at Umbra Penumbra, a small club in Elliott’s then adopted hometown of Portland, Oregon. All the songs are either from Elliott Smith, or were common in his live performances at the time.

The remixed versions have much greater clarity, with a much improved vocal presentation than that heard in previous issues, and the entire project was overseen by Larry Crane. Crane is also a resident of Portland, and runs a local mixing studio, where he’s done work for not only Elliott Smith, but also Sleater-Kinney, The Go-Betweens, The Decemberists, and She & Him among others. He’s also the editor of Tape Op Magazine, and serves as the official archivist for Elliott Smith’s estate. Crane had access to the original tapes for the studio portion of the album, and the live album came from a cassette provided by big-time Elliott Smith fan Casey Cyrnes. Crane says the live tracks have only been available as fan-traded bootleg MP3s from unofficial sources, and the sound quality from the cassette version will blow away true fans anxious to hear the earliest known live recordings of Elliott Smith that exist. I can verify that the remixed/remastered studio tracks are outstanding in terms of sound quality, and the live tracks sound exceptional to have come from such a questionable source.

Qobuz’s 24/96 digital stream sounds fantastic, and if you’re a big fan of Elliott Smith, you might want to also spring for the double-LP version. This also includes a 52-page coffee-table style book with Smith’s handwritten lyrics, reminisces from his friends and colleagues, and dozens of rare and unseen photos by JJ Gonson, who also photographed the original album cover. Portia Sabin of Kill Rock Stars contacted Gonson on a whim, to see if maybe she had taken any more photos of Elliott Smith around the time of her photo shoot for the album cover; as it turns out, she had, and was able to locate several rolls of film that had never seen the light of day. You can find information about the LP release here. Kill Rock Stars has done this one up right, and if you’re a big fan, you’ll be impressed with the results. Highly recommended.

Kill Rock Stars, CD/2 LPs (download/streaming [24/96] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)


The Allman Betts Band  Bless Your Heart

The Allman Brothers Band was legendary guitarist Duane Allman’s group, from the time of its inception to his untimely death due to a motorcycle accident in October, 1971, at a point when the band’s popularity was at its apex. While brother Gregg Allman was, as the band’s principal vocalist, the face of the band, he became the de facto leader after Duane Allman’s death. Bassist Berry Oakley also died a year later, also in a motorcycle accident, and only a block away from where Duane had died. The last ABB album to feature Duane Allman, Eat A Peach, also marked Dickie Betts’ ascent into the lead guitar role with the group, and the song “Blue Sky” became his first lead vocal and signature tune. The next ABB release, Brothers and Sisters, marked Berry Oakley’s last appearance with the band, and the addition of new bassist Lamar Williams and keyboardist Chuck Leavell, which ushered in the new era of the Allman Brothers Band. Brothers and Sisters reached Number 1 on the charts and sold over a million copies, and the Dickie Betts’ penned and sung “Ramblin’ Man” became the band’s biggest hit. But all the commercial success didn’t bode well for the future of the band. Squabbling within the group — predominantly between Gregg Allman and Dickie Betts — and a much publicized drug trial involving members of the band’s road crew, where Gregg Allman testified in the trial, splintered their camaraderie. Although various incarnations of the band recorded together over the next few decades, it was never quite the same with the ABB. Gregg Allman seemed to completely chill in later years as he approached his death, but Dickie Betts just seemed to become a more polarizing figure as the years rolled on.

When the Allman Betts Band first came to my attention last year, I really didn’t pay any attention; I simply assumed it was some kind of empty ploy by Dickie Betts to cash in on his ABB legacy. I didn’t realize until I listened to this excellent new release a couple of days ago, that the band has nothing to do with Dickie Betts, but is made up of guitarists Devon Allman and Duane Betts — the sons of Gregg Allman and Dickie Betts — along with bassist Berry Duane Oakley, the son of original ABB bassist Berry Oakley. Holy cow! The group is rounded out by guitarist Johnny Stachela, keyboardist John Ginty, R. Scott Bryan on percussion and backing vocals, and John Lum on drums. Allman, Betts, and Oakley serve as the principal vocalists for the band. Fortunately, for fans of Southern fried rock and roll, the quarrels of the talented fathers are not always visited on the equally talented sons.

Listening to the Allman Betts Band’s new album, Bless Your Heart, is an absolute blast from the past. The album’s title is really provocative: as a native southerner, I know that the expression “Bless Your Heart!” doesn’t always exactly carry the kind hearted sentimentality that the verbiage would suggest — it can indeed convey what it expresses, but it can just as often express something more along the lines of a complete insult. According to the Urban Dictionary: “Bless Your Heart” is “The most Southern ‘f*ck you’ there is” and that has always been my experience, especially depending upon its context when conversationally involved with true Southerners, especially Southern women. ABB’s debut album, Down To The River, which was released last year about this time, was literally the very first time these guys had played together in a studio, and was a warm tribute to the Allman Brothers’ classic sound. Leading up to that point, the band played classic Allman Brothers tunes at live shows to hone their chops and help develop their own sound. Bless Your Heart has seen the band gel as a unit in ways that have to be heard to be believed, and the new record is a distillation of the classic Allman Brothers sound — which is their birthright — and their own sound they’ve been fine-tuning for the last year or so.

Bless Your Heart was recorded at Alabama’s legendary Muscle Shoals Studios; Devon Allman’s uncle, the late Duane Allman was a regular fixture on the Muscle Shoals scene as a session player on some of the finest R&B and blues records produced in the mid-sixties prior to forming the Allman Brothers Band. The album has an authentic Southern rock sound, and some of the songs are eerily reminiscent of the Allman Brothers at their creative peak. From the slow fade-in of the opening track of “Pale Horse Rider,” you’re greeted with at first screaming, then harmonizing twin guitars and a howling Hammond B3 organ that would have made the fathers of everyone involved very proud indeed. “Magnolia Road” features a Devon Allman vocal that’s eerily reminiscent of his late father Gregg Allman — it’s super spooky, to say the least! The album’s centerpiece is the 12-plus minute long instrumental, “Savannah’s Dream,” which has an intro not unlike “Les Brers in A Minor” from Eat A Peach, but the Allman Betts Band makes the tune entirely their own. That Hammond B3 wails away in the background, and the dual guitar leads craft a southern rock tune as memorable as anything I’ve heard in the last couple of decades.

The 16/44.1 CD quality digital files from Qobuz sounded magnificent. This album is just a joy to listen to; there’s a bit of electronic haze that’s apparent from time to time, but the overall sound is that of a band that’s carving out a place in music history. Very highly recommended!

BMG Rights Management, CD/LP (download/streaming [16/44.1] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube)

Header image of Walter Trout courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Roberta.

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