Album Reviews: Big Pleasures from Little-Known Acts

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Giulia Millanta, Moonbeam Parade. What first drew me to this album was that Michael Fracasso, one of my favorite artists, not only declared himself a Giulia Millanta fan but contributed vocals to one track. That track, the melancholy “If You Ask Me,” turns out to be just one of the highlights on this eclectic, adventurous, well-sung CD—her fifth, and the first to feature her on electric guitar. There is some lyrically rich original material here; and the set also includes an intense, innovative cover of David Bowie’s “R&R Suicide” that the Florence, Italy-born singer delivers mostly in Italian, with English-language vocal assistance from Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb. Another winner is the exuberant “Silvery Gown,” which Millanta says “is about embracing and transcending your pain and self-doubt and letting go of your fears.” That, in fact, is what the now Austin, Texas-based artist seems to do throughout this live-in-the-studio recording, which finds her writing about vulnerabilities and taking musical chances that mostly pay off.

The Connells, Stone Cold Yesterday: Best of the Connells. I tend to go on hype alert when I spot an album from a group I’ve never heard of that has “Best of” in the title. But the Connells, who topped European charts in the '90s with the catchy “’74-’75” and scored an alt-radio hit with “Stone Cold Yesterday,” fully deserve this compilation. So why aren't the group (whose current lineup still perform) more famous? Probably because their addictive melodies and fine harmony vocals and guitar work don’t add up to a sound that’s distinctive enough to set them apart from the competition. Still, based on this program of 16 singles from 1987 to 1998, you could argue that the Connells rank among the best lost pop rock groups of the 80s and '90s. The band hail from North Carolina but their first album was initially released in Europe by a U.K. label; and, as the liner notes here point out, their early sound had much in common with British contemporaries like Echo and the Bunnymen and the Smiths. I’m also reminded of power-pop outfits like the Raspberries, the Knack, the Bluebells, and Dwight Twilley.

Gonzalo Bergara, Zalo’s Blues. Good luck pigeonholing this CD, which references blues in its title, imports to iTunes in the jazz genre, and comes loaded with early rock and roll influences. In fact, the Buenos Aires, Argentina-based Bergara—who has previously been known for his Gypsy jazz guitar performances—draws on all those genres and more on this captivating album, his first with electric instruments. Ably backed throughout by a bassist and drummer, he is a soulful singer; but the chief attraction is his fluid, lightning-fast guitar work, which will have you drawing comparisons to the likes of Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Jeff Beck. The excellent compositions are all original with the exception of Jimmy Reed’s “You Don’t Have to Go.”

Lisa Said, No Turn Left Behind. Said is a first-generation American whose parents moved to Memphis, Tennessee from Cairo. But don’t expect any Egyptian music on No Turn Left Behind, her first full-length album, where she sounds no more Middle Eastern than the “American Girl” Tom Petty sang about. Her chief influences seem to be the rock and roll she heard growing up in the South: acts like the Stones and the Pretenders, plus a dollop of country. I would have made her vocals a bit more prominent in the mix on some of these tracks, but this is an impressive debut—sexy, smart, and eminently playable.

Johnny Nicholas, Fresh Air. Longtime blues vocalist/guitarist/harmonica player Johnny Nicholas shines on this latest CD, which includes 11 songs written or co-written by the Austin, Texas-based artist. Also here are a steamy version of Howlin’ Wolf’s classic “Back Door Man” and a funky reading of Sleepy John Estes’s “Kid Man Blues” that reminds me of the Band. Though everything on Fresh Air is rooted in the blues, there’s also more than a hint of rock and roll in most of the tracks and especially in the rollicking “Red Light,” where the piano work echoes Jerry Lee Lewis. Good stuff, from first track to last.

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Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com), a longtime magazine editor, has written about music, politics, and popular culture for more than 75 periodicals. His books include Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon as well as Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches and Encounters and Leonard Cohen…

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