Various Artists: Ronnie James Dio – This Is Your Life(Rhino) When all of music rushes by in a confusing blur, and this week’s superstar is next week’s has-been, there’s a certain comfort to be had in those musicians truly iconic—and boy, is that an overused term—in their genre. And so it is that the pint-sized, highly respected, golden-throated metal vocalist Ronnie James Dio, here in 1942 and gone in 2010, is in the public eye once more. This well-meaning tribute album, benefiting the Ronnie James Dio Stand Up And Shout Cancer Fund, features an array of metal pals—Anthrax, Motorhead with Biff Byford, Metallica, Scorpions, and, wisely, a conspicuous pair of hot metal babes—and an album cover featuring their lovable horned wildebeest demon swinging a pair of chained maces. Does it rock? Sure! Does it roll? Of course! Does it make you want to watch a Saturday morning cartoon show called The Metal Gang & Sparky? You bet! In the rough ‘n’ tumble and sometimes snooty world of rock’n’roll, you’re not going to find a stronger sense of intra-band camaraderie than in the world o’ metal, and this set—for a good cause, a good guy, and a lot of loud fun—is an affectionate, appropriate nod to Ronnie James Dio, the man noted by world-famous authorities Wikipedia for “popularizing the ‘metal horns’ hand gesture in metal culture” which in some quarters may rank as his all-time cultural achievement. And that’s not entirely a bad call.
Leon Russell: Life Journey (UMe) With one of the longest and most highly respected resumes in the music biz, Leon Russell has been involved in making classic pop music since the early ‘60s. Though he’s been at it ever since, his 2010 album collaboration with Elton John--The Union--brought him back to a higher level of prominence, and this is the theoretical payoff. It’s a sturdy look back at all the music that’s affected Russell over the years, featuring tracks popularized by Robert Johnson, Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington, and even Billy Joel, and it’s solid, warm and near impeccable, musically. With classy production by Tommy LiPuma, and Elton himself on hand as executive producer, it’s the sort of album that will resonate with those who like classic songwriting and stellar musicianship—or really big pictures of guys staring at them from album covers. Sometimes that’s all it takes!
The Robert Cray Band: In My Soul (Mascot) Once renowned for being one of the brightest young bluesmen out there, distinguished guitarist Cray is now 60 years old, and with In My Soul offers up a very sturdy 17th studio album. And while it would be tempting to just say it’s more of the same, to most that’s an implied negative, so let’s be clear: Cray is never less than good, and unlike most straight blues guitarists, there’s enough funk, R&B and pure Memphis-inspired soul in his music to make each new album a fresh listening experience. Produced by renowned drummer/power-player Steve Jordan, this new one sounds particularly strong: Lots of band originals here, covers of Otis Redding, Bobby Bland and Mable John, and a general high level of creativity and enthusiasm that speaks well for any multiple Grammy-winner at this stage of their career. Recommended stuff.
Jonny Two Bags: Salvation Town (Isotone) A reassuringly good, nifty showing from guitarist Jonny Wickersham, who in his “Two Bags” guise here has crafted a muscular set of well-written, well-sung tunes all on his own—but might be known to many for his role in such bands as Social Distortion (for whom he’s played since 2000), Cadillac Tramps, Youth Brigade and U.S. Bombs. With that kind of a pedigree you might be expecting an album sounding like a plate of spaghetti thrown against a wall, but no—the songs are sharp, the playing energetic, the players distinguished (Jackson Browne, David Lindley, Greg Leisz, Julie Miller, drummer Pete Thomas, many more), and an overall sense of discipline and craftsmanship evident throughout. True, the Vandals once wrote a song about him on Live Fast, Diarrhea, but this may be an even bigger deal.
Cyndi Lauper: She’s So Unusual: A 30th Anniversary Celebration (Epic/Legacy) Now that re-releasing albums at five-year intervals is the norm, can we maybe agree 30 years may be the most appropriate stretch? A lot has happened since Cyndi Lauper made her gigantic splash via “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” and not all of it’s been good. Pre-MTV, New York locals knew her as a stellar vocalist with her club band Blue Angel; post-MTV most of America knew her as the wacky singer who dressed a certain way, cavorted with Captain Lou Albano, and essentially helped make music video explode in a very big way. This, her first solo album, is the one that has the hits—“Girls,” “Time After Time,” “She Bop” and more—is the most fondly remembered, and bears a pretty sharp list of writer credits. It still sounds great—that’s where the theoretical 30-year absence from consciousness plays a part—and the extra tracks on the second disc here are genuinely a bonus, and fascinating listening at this late date. A surprising good time, you’ll find.
Cloud Nothings: Here & Nowhere Else (Carpark) There’s something just different enough about the contradictory mix of simplicity and complexity here on the fourth album by Cleveland’s Cloud Nothings. It’s in writer Dylan Baldi's catchy songs, which whether in lo-fi or polished form remain appealing; it’s in the attitude, which punctuates nearly all of them; and it’s the blend of sophistication and dopily bludgeoning guitar riffs that makes each new song a swift, buzzy listen. They started out good, but they’re getting lots better.
The “5” Royales: Soul & Swagger: The Complete “5” Royales 1951-1967 (RockBeat) Occasionally an unexpected, lush package drops down from the heavens, and this week it's the 5-CD collection of the works of North Carolina’s pioneering R&B combo the “5” Royales, whose impact on American music was not small. Among those deeply influenced were James Brown and Steve Cropper (who like many was captivated by the band’s guitarist Lowman “Pete” Pauling); songs like the group’s “Dedicated To The One I Love,” “Think,” and “Tell The Truth,” all included here, were also covered regularly. Loaded with great tracks, amazing guitar-playing, and an abundance of packaging extras, the collection is a worthy, in-depth look at group that these days is typically relegated to larger various artist compilations. Really good stuff, lovingly assembled.
Deep Purple: Cal Jam 1974 (Eagle Rock Entertainment) Since we started with a nod to singer Ronnie James Dio, we should probably also note this week’s CD release of Deep Purple’s 1974 celebrated performance at the Ontario Speedway in California. Bearing a picture of Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore (Dio’s onetime bandmate in Rainbow) on its cover, the album features the David Coverdale/Glenn Hughes version of the group, then out promoting its new album Burn. Fans of the band know this was an interesting show that was actually broadcast on ABC in its time—which, in retrospect, now seems weird as hell. And while sound quality could indeed be better, this more than serves its purpose.
Lacuna Coil: Broken Crown Halo (Century Media) As a longtime fan of Italian horror films, I can't help but intrinsically dig Italian metal-types Lacuna Coil--who are back with their seventh album, and in loud but surprisingly accessible form. Singer Cristina Scabbia is an undeniable asset, the band’s previous album had a strong showing on the Billboard charts, and this one—produced by Jay Baumgardner, who’s worked with Evanescence, among others—will likely do even better. Momentum is with them.