Hell or High Water Soundtrack – A Country Music Review

So this is the companion to my review of the movie “Hell or High Water” movie.  The film brings up to the present day the Texas outlaw genre.  The music is a mixture of evocative movie background instrumental and then songs from various artists that speak to the theme.   The artists, Townes Van Zandt, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Waylon Jennings, Colter Wall,  Scott H. Biram and Chris Stapleton are far from uniform in their styles or even genre.  I believe Van Zandt is considered a folk music singer/songwriter but the songs fit the theme and even the instrumental pieces provided by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis fit together well and qualify as actual music and not just sound effects.  I’ve listed the non-instrumental songs below.  All in all, an enjoyable album of music.  Recommended for when you’re feeling like an outlaw which for me lately is most of the time.

Dollar Bill Blues
by Townes Van Zandt

Dust of the Chase
by Ray Wylie Hubbard

You Ask Me To
by Waylon Jennings

Sleeping On The Blacktop
by Colter Wall

Blood, Sweat and Murder
by Scott H. Biram

Outlaw State Of Mind
by Chris Stapleton

Portly Politico – A Very Dokken Christmas, Part III:  Under Lock and Key

1985 was a great year.  President Ronald Reagan began his second term in office, The Portly Politico was born (not the blog, just me), and Dokken released their finest effort to date, the start-to-finish gem Under Lock and Key.

 

Their third studio album was also their most commercially successful up to that point, perhaps due in part to a more commercial sound.  That said, Under Lock and Key isn’t just a Def Leppard sound-alike, or full of crowd-pleasing power ballads.  It’s an album that rocks consistently, and even the mid-tempo material is full of fist-pumping fury.

 

Take the opener, “Unchain the Night.”  Just like Tooth and Nail’s “Without Warning,” Under Lock and Key kicks off with a brief but effective instrumental intro (albeit part of the title track, instead of a separate tune), this time with synthesizers.  I crank this part up as far as my Dodge minivan’s sound system will allow for the full, gut-punching effect—after a slow synth arpeggio drop, the guitars kick in full blast, and “Unchain the Night” truly begins.

 

I don’t know exactly what Dokken is trying to convey when he sings, “Never unchain the night/don’t tell me that the love is gone/never unchain the night/’Cause tomorrow’s another turn,” but it’s powerful, and a powerful earworm.  I also can’t help but note the contrast with Breaking the Chain’s title track, which is all about breaking free of personal and emotional chains (a later chorus in “Unchain the Night” ends with “I’m never gonna set you free”—dang).

 

“The Hunter” is an equally effective second track.  It’s the perfect song before heading out for a night on the town, as it’s all about being a hunter on the prowl, “Searching for love on these lonely streets again.”  A common theme in rock ‘n’ roll is the pantheric nature of the wandering troubadour, never fully satisfied with his lot in life and love, constantly stalking the concrete jungles for a shot at romance—or unbridled lust.  It’s not as intensely sexy as Whitesnake’s “Still of the Night,” but it gets the point across well.

 

The third track, “In My Dreams,” is a solid track, and was a minor hit for the band.  Here the fullness of the band’s ensemble vocals is heard from the get-go.  It’s a strong rocker, and one that showcases the band’s overall style and range well.

 

But for money, the best track on the album is “Lightnin’ Strikes Again,” a furious, intense, full-throttle rocker that never lets up.  Like sitting through a raging thunderstorm, you can feel this track in your bones.  It features an incredible, multi-measure drum fill that sounds like acoustical lightning, and some of Don Dokken’s finest vocal work as he leaps to seemingly impossible heights, with a call-and-response, “Lightnin’!/Lightnin’ Strikes Again!” repeats until the end.

 

The rest of the album is solid throughout; if anything, my failure as a reviewer is how hooked I am on “Lightnin’ Strikes Again.”  When I listen to Under Lock and Key, I force myself to listen to the last five tracks, not because they suck, but because “Lightnin’ Strikes Again” is so good.  “It’s Not Love” is a fun song about breaking with an obsessive girlfriend (not fun if you’ve ever experienced, but the song handles it cheekily).  “Will the Sun Rise” is a brooding, beautiful, sad tune about warriors setting off in a post-nuclear war, and asks dolefully if they’ll ever see the sun or sky again.

 

Most reviewers recommend Under Lock and Key as a good place to start with Dokken, and I will repeat that advice unabashedly.  It represents a mature version of the band, and it has something for almost any taste (as long as you’re broadly into hard rock and heavy metal from the 1980s).  It remains one of my favorite albums of all time; if not in the Top Five, it’s definitely in the Top Ten.  Highly recommended.

Portly Politico – A Very Dokken Christmas, Part II:  Tooth and Nail

We continue our yuletide celebration of Dokken with the 1984’s Tooth and Nail.  After the tepid performance of 1983’s Breaking the Chains, Dokken found themselves in debt to the tune of a cool half-a-million, and Elektra contemplated dropping the band.  Don Dokken and his management convinced the label to give the group one last shot; thus, the tenacious title.

 

That tenacity paid off, and is heard in every riff of Tooth and Nail.  If Breaking the Chains had some gems, Tooth and Nail shines like a diamond throughout.  Indeed, it’s a testament to the band’s songwriting that their third album, Under Lock and Key, would improve upon Tooth and Nail’s sonic attack.

 

Simply put, this album rocks, while also offering up more pop-oriented tunes.  Dokken opens the album with an atmospheric instrumental opener that’s just the right length.  I’m a big fan of extended instrumental introductions, so long as they lead somewhere.  “Without Warning” lives up to its title, as it seamlessly, suddenly transitions into the full-frontal assault of the title track, “Tooth and Nail.”

 

“Tooth and Nail” is the kind of opening rocker that should start every metal album.  The track is fast and fun, with an excellent, memorable chorus.  Don Dokken had been working with a vocal coach in Germany, and his improved range and technique are evident on “Tooth and Nail,” as he hits a stratospheric “Straight to the top!” toward the end of the song.

 

There are several other standout tracks, including the power ballad “Alone Again,” a song that helped boost flagging album sales.  Some listeners scoff at power ballads, but I love them if they’re executed well, with solid dynamic contrast, memorable choruses, interesting bridges, etc.  “Alone Again” doesn’t quite get to the level of, say, Heart’s “Alone” by these metrics, but it’s fun to sing in your car.

 

For my money, though, “When Heaven Comes Down” is a solid, underappreciated rocker, one that demonstrates the strength of the backing vocals.  Don’t underestimate the power of good backing vocals (see also:  Michael Anthony on almost every Van Halen song).

 

“Bullets to Spare” and “Turn on the Action,” the album’s closer, are similarly rockin’ affairs, though I’m partial to the latter.  “Bullets to Spare” is the kind of cheeky tune that makes me love the macho humor of glam metal, but “Turn on the Action” sounds like the kind of tune that could have come on the heels of “Tooth and Nail” to make for the iconic double-rocker-opener that I crave.

 

Ultimately, Tooth and Nail helped get the band off life-support, and set the stage for the exquisite Under Lock and Key—the subject of our the third and final album in our series A Very Dokken Christmas.

Portly Politico – A Very Dokken Christmas, Part I:  Breaking the Chains (1983)

To celebrate the Christmas season, I’d like to explore 80s hair metal giants Dokken’s first three albums, starting with their 1983 debut, Breaking the Chains.  The story of this album is curious in itself, as there are actually two versions:  one recorded in 1981, then in another with the classic Dokken line-up of Don Dokken, George Lynch, Mick Brown, and Jeff Pilson (Pilson played bass on the tour, but not on the album).  The best treatment of that story is The Rageaholic’s Metal Mythos: DOKKEN video; indeed, that video first turned me on to Dokken, a band I’d almost entirely missed in past forays into 80s metal.

 

This review will cover the 1983 album, as that’s properly when “Dokken” as such began (some pressings of 1981’s Breakin’ the Chains—note the dropped “G” in the ’81 version’s title—listed the artist as “Don Dokken”).  Also, I haven’t heard enough of the ’81 cut to comment upon it adequately.

 

Breaking the Chains kicks off with its excellent title track, a tune that’s both rockin’ and sleek.  It’s central riff—built around a persistent transition from E minor to D to C, and back again—is simple but effective, and resolves nicely into the G major of the distinctive chorus.  Like much of 80s hair metal, the tune effortlessly combines a brooding sense of rock ‘n’ roll machismo with a catchy, radio-friendly chorus.

 

The album’s second track, “In The Middle,” is another mid-tempo rocker, but feels like a missed opportunity.  The opening track itself, while exquisite, is already a slower tune.  The decision to follow that up with another andante selection makes for a lackluster double opener.  Dokken would perfect the “rockin’-double-opener” approach on future albums, but the best tracks on Breaking the Chains await.

 

Really, the album doesn’t really get cooking until the fifth track, “Live to Rock (Rock to Live),” an unapologetic rocker all about, well, rockin’ out.  I’ve yet to give this track the “drive test” I referenced in my Down to Earth review, but I’m sure it would pass.  Speaking of the drive test, Dokken follows “Live to Rock” with “Nightrider,” which sounds like driving a sports car with a panther on the roof through the rain-slick neon of an 80s night.  These two tracks should have appeared a bit earlier on the album.

 

The album closes with a live recording of “Paris is Burning” from a 1982 show in Berlin.  That track rips open with a George Lynch guitar solo that sounds like Van Halen’s “Eruption.”  That kind of guitar pyrotechnics is missing from most of the record, so this live recording is a welcome addition to the album.

 

Much of this initial effort is enjoyable but forgettable, but there are some real gems on Breaking the Chains, not just the title track.  All in all, it’s a solid record that points to the intensity and power of future Dokken releases.

The Portly Politico’s Review of Rainbow’s Down to Earth

The good folks at Orion’s Cold Fire have generously allowed me the opportunity to contribute to the site.  I write primarily about politics, economics, and history at https://theportlypolitico.wordpress.com, but as a “semi-pro” musician (and a full-time music teacher), I enjoy occasionally critiquing music.  The purpose of this feature is to review classic 70s and 80s-era hard rock and heavy metal albums.  Why such a specific genre and time period?  Essentially, I believe this genre represents the pinnacle of rock music.  With its confluence of blues, acid rock, country-western, and all the other distinct musical “flavors” of the mid-twentieth century, rock and roll reached its greatest artistic and technical summits during the “classic rock” era.  I’ll write further about that contentious claim at a later date; but now, let’s boogie!

When considering an album to review, I more or less use this criteria:  does it sound like hard rock/heavy metal?  Have I listened to it enough to comment upon it?  And does it rock?  That’s not the best criteria, as it predisposes me to writing glowing reviews of every album, but there you have it—the highly unscientific approach I take to writing about music I generally love.

All that aside, my first album review for Orion’s Cold Fire was a no-brainer:  1979’s Down to Earth by Rainbow.  This album perfectly encapsulates the direction of rock music at that crucial turning point between punk and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.

Down to Earth was the first and only Rainbow album to feature Graham Bonnet on lead vocals, who replaced legendary metal vocalist Ronnie James Dio.  Rainbow’s guitarist and mastermind, Ritchie Blackmore, was notorious for sacking musicians on a whim, so most of the album’s personnel was wildly different than even the previous Rainbow release.

Regardless, this album rocks.  While he’s no Dio, the songs on Down to Earth are uniquely suited for Bonnet’s vocals—probably because he wrote the melodies after the band had already recorded all of the tracks.

The album’s big hit—and Rainbow’s first hit single—is “Since You Been Gone,” a Russ Ballard-penned tune that strikes the right balance between rock and pop.  The chorus is catchy as the flu, but like any good hard rock song, the pre-chorus build really sets up the triumphant release of the chorus beautifully.  Listen to the bass and guitar after the line “Your poison letter, your telegram” and you’ll see what I mean.

That said, my favorite tracks are the opening and closing numbers, “All Night Long” and “Lost in Hollywood,” respectively.  Musically, they rock, and “Lost in Hollywood” passes what I call the “drive test”—I drive much faster when listening to it.  It also features some of Rainbow’s signature neoclassical embellishments, pointing to the rise of neoclassical metal.

Lyrically, they’re fairly depressing commentaries of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, not to mention the Sexual Revolution.  “All Night Long” is sung from the point of view of a jaded, lonely rocker, searching the crowd for a babe to spend the night with him (the most poignant line, from the third verse: “I know I can’t stand another night on my own”).  “Lost in Hollywood” describes a man so dedicated to rock, he’s lost the woman who makes it all worthwhile.

There are some less memorable tracks—the neoclassically-inflected “Eyes of the World” is a commentary on humanity’s rapacious capacity for violence and waste, but is a bit ponderous; “Makin’ Love” has its moments, but is forgettable—but, from start to finish, Down to Earth is as good an introduction to classic hard rock as I can conceive.  Crank it up!

Tyler Childers – Live on Red Barn Radio I & II – A Country Music Review

Regular readers know I’m a fan of Tyler Childers.  He’s a country singer-songwriter from Eastern Kentucky and he combines interesting vocals, his acoustic guitar playing, an excellent mix of country instrumental accompanists with his very creative lyrics.  I especially enjoy his ballads, a stand out being “Banded Clovis” on his “Purgatory” album.

The present review is of a live album from 2013.  The eight songs include two that were on other albums, namely “Whitehouse Road” from Purgatory and “Bottles and Bibles” from the album of the same name.  Listening to some of the other songs I would say you can tell that they come from an earlier period of his song-writing career.  They are simpler and less ambitious in terms of imagery and effect.  But they’re good and I take them as an excellent addition to my collection.  Interestingly two of the songs were written by other artists, “Rock Salt and Nails” by Bruce Utah Phillips and “Coming Down” by John R. Miller.  Now I guess I’ll be forced to look up their stuff.  How I suffer for my art.

Anyway, if you like Tyler Childers’ other stuff you’ll almost definitely like this live album.  Highly recommended.

High Top Mountain – Sturgill Simpson – A Country Music Review – Part 2

I ‘ve now had a chance to listen to High Top Mountain a good bit and I can say without a doubt that this is my favorite album by Sturgill Simpson.  And that’s because it’s country music.  He isn’t experimenting here with other genres and sounds.  It’s straight up classic country with plenty of energy, fun lyrics and excellent steel guitar.  For me the best songs are:

  • Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean
  • You Can Have the Crown
  • Sitting Here Without You
  • Time After All

But honestly, I think they’re all good.  Now how rare is that?  Most albums have three or four strong songs and the rest weak.  This album has twelve songs and they range from excellent to good.  They vary from ballads to up tempo rockabilly.  I’m just disappointed that his later albums don’t appeal to me as much.  Maybe these were all the country songs he wanted to make.  Well if that’s so, then I’m glad he made this album and that I found it.  I think it’s a keeper.

High Top Mountain – Sturgill Simpson – A Country Music Review – Part 1

There is a lot of bad music out there.  And there is a lot of bad country music.  One of the ways I try to find good music is by association with other good music.  Case in point, a friend of mine at work told me about Colter Wall so I checked out his music and really liked it.  One of his songs is a cover of the old song Fraulein.  On that song is a second singer and looking him up it turned out to be Tyler Childers.  So I checked out his music and really liked it.  Looking over Childer’s album Purgatory I noticed it was produced by Sturgill Simpson.  Now I knew of Simpson.  I had his “Metamodern Sounds In Country Music” album and there was one song on that album called Panbowl that was extremely good but overall I was undecided if I was a fan.  But now I decided to take another look at Sturgill’s catalog.  I listened to his latest album, “A Sailor’s Guide To Earth,” and didn’t really care for it.  Then I went back to his first album, “High Top Mountain,” and really liked it a lot.  I’ll listen to a lot of it for the next few days and then I’ll finish up this review.  But I can say already it’s a solid country album and Simpson is a good singer songwriter.  The fact that I didn’t care for his later stuff as much might mean High Top Mountain is more or less all of his stuff I’ll like.  That’s okay.  Even finding a whole album you like is a feat worth noting.  This album is definitely a win.