Gin, Chocolate & Bottle Rockets
    Somewhere between the Andrews Sisters of the 1940s and the Indigo Girls of the 1990s sits a Wisconsin trio whose self-released sophomore effort contains no fat. In fact, it’s called Lean. With the unlikely name of Gin, Chocolate & Bottle Rockets, these three indie folk-pop singer/songwriters would’ve fit right in with Sarah McLaughlin’s Lilith Fair tours. Their three-part harmony is, in a word, exquisite. Their compositions are so foundationally strong that you could build a house on them. Their one cover is so cool, it should be a 2018 hit single (“Sweet Dreams” by The Eurythmics).

    Between Beth Kille’s acoustic guitar and mandolin, the keyboards and accordion of Shawndell Marks and Jen Farley’s kazoo (augmented by drums, cello, electric guitar, bass ukulele and a second acoustic), Lean not only moves into uncharted raw emotional confessionals but blues, soul, balladry and the kind of instrumental prowess that makes one sit up a little straighter and take notice.

Banana Split For My Baby
    Starting off with a 1960 Dallas rockabilly rave-up from regional hero Ronnie Dawson (“Summer’s Coming”), these summer songs in 79 minutes keep up the heat — time-capsule-style — with a crazy mosaic of artists like Elmore James, Louie Prima, Leslie Uggams, The Royal Teens, Bobby Darin, Clyde McPhatter, Tab Hunter, Rodney & The Blazers, Ritchie Valens, Dean Martin, Tennessee Ernie Ford and my two favorites: “Bad Sunburn” by Ronny Isle & The Blisters and “Suntan Tattoo” by The Valiants with Jimmy Vale. Even actor Roger Smith gets into the act with “Beach Time.” Banana Split For My Baby: 33 Gems From The Good Old Summertime is a worthy 2018 rock-out with oddball clinkers thrown in the mix that are at least funny. Leave it to the good folks at Bear Family in Germany to come up with such a varied and entertaining collection. As with all Bear Family projects, the packaging is top-notch, containing great pics of each artist and a solid paragraph behind each song. What a treasure trove!  


Born and raised in Canada, now based in Auckland, New Zealand, singer/songwriter Tami Neilson continues down her retro-soul path on Sassafrass! (Outside Music) like a rockabilly Amy Winehouse. She co-produced and co-wrote it all, spitting out “Stay Outta My Business” for all the haters out there; “Kitty Cat” for all the chauvinist men who think a woman’s body is to be indiscriminately grabbed; “Bananas” in protest of gender inequality; “Devil In A Dress” about good girl/bad girl stereotypes and “Smoking Gun” about sexual harassment. Her soft side comes out in tributes to fallen singers. “Manitoba Sunrise at Motel 6” was written the day Glen Campbell died (and “Miss Jones” is for Sharon of The Dap-Kings). Sassafrass! sparkles with static electricity. Tami howls in all the right spots, coos sweet nothings and breathes heavy in your ear. Bravo!

Courtesy of Richard Rosenblatt

Little Boys Blue
    Around Tennessee, John Holiday is known as Kid Memphis, able to sting those strings with a blues feeling. JD Taylor has a voice reserved for the greats, and he can blow that blues harp in your face like nobody’s business. Put them together in a Hard Blue Space (VizzTone Label Group) and you’ve got an instant party. Here’s hoping Little Boys Blue w/Kid Memphis get to come up north sometime because their brand of Southern Blues and roots-rock Americana is as trustworthy a pick as seeing the Allmans in Georgia a few decades ago. All 10 songs are highlights. Lightly sprinkled with some Hammond B-3, piano and some slide, it’s perfecto! Still, it all comes back to that voice of JD Taylor. Man, this dude was born with some soulful pipes. Highly recommended.  

Credit – Ilia De La Rosa

Blues In The Nude
    From Atlanta to Austin, alto and tenor saxophonist/composer/educator Zack Varner has absorbed his influences well. You can hear traces of tango, bossa nova, bebop, post-swing, jazz-rock fusion and avant-garde on his self-released, self-produced, all-original 11-track Blues In The Nude debut. It helps to have bandmates as stalwart as pianist Ross Margitza, bassist Daniel Durham and drummer Wayne Salzmann II. They have friends too: the cello on “Asterism,” the guitar on “How Bout It” and “Stonehenge Throwdown,” plus trombone, trumpet and a second sax. See him if you can as he leaves to teach in Denmark soon.


    Ain’t nobody like the great Fats Domino [1928-2017]. His swagger, charm, two-fisted piano, unique Creole-accented voice and compositions have stood the test of time. The 32 songs on The Ballads of Fats Domino (Bear Family Productions) sound as refreshingly vital today as they did when they were first released between 1952 and 1961. (Bill Dahl’s liner notes are a great read.) It took two, though, to make Fats so legendary. His main man Dave Bartholomew, 99, and still living in New Orleans, collaborated, played trumpet, led the band, produced and wrote the kind of songs like “Blue Monday” (took him all of 15 minutes) that are etched on my brain like a tattoo. Don’t get scared off by the word “Ballads” in the title. Every ounce of Domino’s wiggle, smile, personality, pianistics and rockin’ soul-drenched folkloric Louisiana lightning is on full display and it sounds so joyous and righteous in 2018 that it could sooth your savage soul. All hail The Fat Man!

Rocket Launch
    There’s a recording studio in the Northern Black Forest of southern Germany in a small town called Calw. It’s a hip room that dozens of bands have used, so much so that in 2013 Black Shack Recordings put out a compilation called Rocket Launch. The last five years have seen an uptick in sessions, so much so that Rocket Launch Volume #2 is out on Rhythm Bomb Records and, man, it rocks on for 27 tracks in just under 80 minutes.

    Like a cross-cut saw, this mosaic of indie artists hits home hard with ripping, cutting, intensely dramatic flair. In its true ‘50s-styled original rock ’n’ roll joyousness, be it rockabilly, proto-punk, alt. pop, mainstream, swing or just crazy wildness, artists like Royal Flush, The Frantic Rockers, The B-Shakers, Sonny Tucker & The Tornados, The Booze Bombs, The Real Gone Tones, Twisted Rod, The Voodoo Phones, Dusty Dave & The Heart Attacks, Black Patti, Shorty Tom & The Long Shots and more give it their best. And when their best isn’t good enough, they give it their all and just get louder and louder. There’s something to be said for that.