Album Reviews: From Blues to Bluegrass and Rock to Rockabilly

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Here’s a look at a few of the releases I’ve been listening to lately. All are either available now or will be in the weeks ahead. 

Blue Plate Special, Back by Popular Demand. Opting to concentrate mostly on live performance, this New Jersey-based quintet have delivered only four albums in their 15 years together. But their bluegrass-, country-, folk-, and swing-influenced music sounds just as compelling on record as it does on stage. It helps that each member of the group ably wears several hats: while Jay Friedman or banjo/guitar player Dan Whitener sings lead on most of the songs, the group’s other members all take turns in the vocal spotlight; and among them, the five play banjo, guitar, fiddle, mandolin, and upright bass. Plus, four of them are songwriters, and this all-originals latest collection finds them delivering numbers that seem good enough to be old standards. The diversity is as impressive as the musicianship. Sometimes, such as on Whitener’s “You Can Never Go Home Again,” they sound like Appalachian heirs to traditional bluegrass and country outfits; Jay Friedman’s charming “Rotary Phone,” meanwhile, is a bit redolent of pop vocal groups from the 1940s; Dave Gross’s “Oh Lord I’m Down in a Hole” has gospel roots; and Friedman’s moody “Bed of Roses” reminds me of the seventies work of Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks.

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Gus Spenos, If You Were Gold, Baby. What do neurologists do when they’re not seeing patients? Turns out at least one plays tenor sax and sings with a hot jazz band—and I do mean hot. The horn section in Spenos’s blues- and rock-influenced outfit shows off a big bag of tricks that will turn your head or, just as likely, get you on your feet and onto the dance floor. Spenos, whose vocals often sound like the work of a sprightlier and more versatile version of Mose Allison, offers up a strong program of swing, jump, and boogie on this debut album. Spenos’s originals hold their own in a song list that also includes such chestnuts as Jimmy Witherspoon’s “Money’s Getting’ Cheaper” and the fifties rock hits “Tequila” (the Champs) and “Walkin’ with Mr. Lee.” (Lee Allen). It might be time for the doctor to close down the practice and focus on curing “patients” in concert halls.

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Bill Lloyd, Lloyd-ering. You don’t have to listen long to this covers collection to figure out what decades Bill Lloyd’s head is stuck in. The album includes a reading of the Beatles’ “Across the Universe,” but most of it focuses on relatively obscure album cuts from major acts of the sixties and seventies, among them the Hollies’ “Step Inside,” Badfinger’s “Lonely You,” and Todd Rundgren’s “I Don’t Want to Tie You Down.” On many of these tracks, Lloyd seems more intent on recreating than reimagining, but he does do a fine job of conjuring up his source material. (A reading of the Byrds’ “The World Turns All Around Her” is one of several tracks that sound almost indistinguishable from the originals.) The album, therefore, isn’t particularly innovative, but for fans of the musical era Lloyd loves it delivers good fun throughout. Highlights include power-pop versions of the Bobby Fuller Four’s “Let Her Dance” and the Raspberries’ “Goin’ Nowhere Tonight."

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Left Arm Tan, Lorene. When you import this album into iTunes, the genre shows up as “mainstream rock.” That’s partly misleading, as much of this sounds rooted less in pure rock than in the sort of rock- and folk-influenced country territory mapped out in earlier decades by the likes of Poco and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Still, there’s no question that this qualifies as mainstream. The good news is that the group feature excellent vocalists and display a fine melodic sense, and their well-produced album is consistently enjoyable. However, it blazes no new trails and includes little to set it apart from the competition in an extremely crowded field. If Left Arm Tan is to stand out, they’re probably going to have to come up with a sound that’s as distinctive as their moniker.

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The Mike Eldred Trio, Baptist Town. This fourth album stakes out diverse terrain and proves the trio to be masters of all they survey. The CD opens with “Hunder Dollar Bill,” a potent rockabilly-spiced blues rocker; showcases gospel influences on “Papa Legba”; veers into earthy Americana on “Bess,” which boasts wonderful accordion by Los Lobos’s David Hidalgo; and recalls Led Zeppelin with the high-octane guitar pyrotechnics on “Sugar Shake” and a cover of the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love.” Somehow it all ties together and, while the album is arguably uneven, its best material is already in heavy rotation around my house.

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

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