By John B Moore

Nato Coles and the Blue Diamond Band
Flyover (Don Giovanni Records and Rum Bar Records)

It's been five long years since the tragically underrated Minneapolis-based Nato Coles and the Blue Diamond Band last put out a studio album of new material and man, has that wait seemed like an eternity. As the band proves on their latest, Flyover, there are few modern groups playing today that can nail such a brilliant mix of classic and current guitar rock. The fact that the lyrics are as impressive as the music is a bonus. Mixing Joe strummer guitar playing and an E Street Band-worthy rhythm section with vocals that sound eerily similar to 38 Special's Dan Barnes, Nato Cole and his group whip through 10 tracks that vacillate between full on rock numbers ("Demolition Man," "The Roadrunner"), slow build barn burners ("Phoenix, Arizona 1989") and rock ballads that somehow manage to sound both nostalgic and remarkably relevant in 2020 ("Mild And The Bars," "Disposable Camera," "The Avenue of Saints"). There is not a single moment of superfluous music that could be trimmed from this record. The U.S. has had a historically embarrassing showing on the world stage politically over the last four years thanks to uncontrolled racism, narcissism and unfiltered ignorance. It's easy to be embarrassed of how quickly our country's reputation has sunk. Flyover, a decidedly American Rock record, reminds you that there's still a lot of great this country has to offer… and no need to don a stupid red hat.

Ben Lee
Quarter Century Classix (New West Records)

There's something strangely comforting about '90s lo-fi Indie Pop stalwart Ben Lee turning to the songs of his louder contemporaries for his covers record. Though Lee is probably better known for the more accessible pop elements of that era's alt rock music, he makes an inspired choice to take on songs by the likes of more distortion-laden bands like Sonic Youth, Fugazi and Dinosaur Jr. on Quarter Century Classix. The result is a mixed bag. His acoustic takes on The Breeders' "Divine Hammer" is impressive, as his original take on Dinosaur Jr.'s "Get Me." His cover of Built To Spill's "Car" is hauntingly sweet, but elsewhere, Fugazi's "Blueprint" is pretty blah and Superchunk's "My Noise" sounds a little perfunctory. Lee brings in a slew of collaborators for this one - including Juliana Barwick, Mike Watt, that dog's Petra Haden and Azure Ray's Maria Taylor, among others – to help fill out the sound. Ultimately, the record is a mix of endearing classics reworked in Lee's own style and a few filler tracks here and there.

The Restarts
Uprising (Pirates Press Records)

Political punk rock may be the only thing to save us as the world devolves into a realty show of xenophobia, unchecked capitalism and rising ocean levels. And London-based punks The Restarts may have the ideal soundtrack to this shitshow. This 12-track burst of fury and energy was written not long after singer/guitarist Robin Licker's got back from doing humanitarian work in Palestine. And as expected, Uprising doesn't stray too far from their trademark high intensity punk/ska hybrid, with whiplash drums, a barrage of distorted chords, barked vocals and justified anger, finding the band tear through a litany of vital, global issues, from the denial of apartheid, Brexit, refugees in the Calais Jungle and universal problems like homophobia and addiction. Each song like a lit Molotov cocktail hurled into the world, the anger is almost palpable and the drive undeniable. Songs like the two-minute ska-tinged "Shut Doors" and the brilliant anthem "Out and Proud" are among the band's strongest in years. The four-minute long album closer "New World Order" (that length alone is an anomaly for the band), with a synth lines running throughout, is the one song that seems oddly out of place. But with repeated listens it eventually coalesces with the rest of the album.

The Juice (Philadelphonic/Thirty Tigers)

While G. Love's latest, The Juice, is technically a solo album, he still filled the studio with plenty of friends for the outing. Most prominently was former labelmate Keb Mo, who co-produced, co-wrote and performs on several songs across the record. Other guests who stopped by the studio include Marcus King, Robert Randolph, Roosevelt Collier and Ron Artis. And while this slew of new voices and players don't entirely change the unique vibe and sound G. Love has build up over the past 25 years, it does expand on his funky, Jazz, R&B, Pop fusion quite a bit. He leans heavily into the Blues on tracks like "Fix Your Face," and the track "Shake Your Hair" hardly sounds like a G. Love song until you hear his distinct vocals, a mix of Philly immediacy strained through a southern drawl. The album kicks off with the title track (which also closes the record), one of his most overtly political songs with nods to the Me Too Movement and general equality. His lyrics - almost a trademark in goofiness that surprisingly almost always manage to work – do come off a little too forced now and then on this record (most notably on the eye-rolling "Soulbque"). But that odd knack for turn of phrase shines beautifully on a song like the sweet "She's The Rock," one of G. Love's closest attempts to a Pop song yet. At this point, more than two and a half decades in, you pretty much know what to expect with a G. Love record. Love him or not, he's consistently content doing his own thing as musical fads come and go. The Juice seems to keep the streak going, even if it's tweaked ever so slightly on this outing.

Come On Up To The House:
Women Sing Waits (Dualtone)

It's sometimes taken for granted just how brilliant a songwriter Tom Waits is. The sky is blue, water is wet, and Waits can write a truly heartbreaking song. Maybe it's the fact that he's been making music for more than four decades; Maybe it's that some just can't get past his graveled vocals, but sometime all it takes is listening to a fresh take on his songs to realize just how exceptional Waits is as a songwriter. Come On Up To The House is hardly the first Waits tribute record, but it is easily one of the best. Boasting an all-female cast that includes Aimee Mann, Patty Griffin, sisters Shelby Lynn and Allison Moorer and Rosanne Cash, among others, the lyrics are given a fresh perspective in this mostly stripped down affair. More often than not, the result is stunning. The opening track, Mann's take on "Hold On," or the stark "Come On Up To The House," flawlessly covered by Josephine are simply sublime. While not ever song hits its mark, (Iris Dement's "House Where Nobody Lives" is a pretty uninspired effort), there are more than enough brilliant covers here to keep you coming back to this record for years to come.



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