Deer Tick, Negativity. Sometimes toiling outside the glare of the big spotlight can be a good thing. It gives a band time to make mistakes, learn and get better. Or not. Luckily Deer Tick have gone to school on their early stages and found a way to land a knockout blow with their new album. Singer-songwriter John McCauley has been through enough rocky waters the past year to send most people all the way up around the bend, but somehow the Rhode Islander uses those challenges as a booster rocket to rock greatdom. Deer Tick is a band of very few frills, and has a way of boiling down guitars, bass and drums to a fairly devastating edge. With producer Steve Berlin, though, Negativity sounds like a door-opener to a whole new world, including adding horns, strings and female vocalists. Their street-smart attack lets them expand the vision without ever sacrificing the gritty side of the street.
Many of those strengths can be traced directly to McCauley himself. In rock and roll, it doesn't take much to tell the long-termers from the short-haul singers. From Lou Reed to Paul Westerberg to John McCauley, it's all a matter of letting the heart take the lead. There are no doubt better voices in music, but there are no finer artists to really believe in. The way Deer Tick's front man pleads his case can be a near-traumatic affair, as his tightrope walk through life often sounds like it could go either way. But the way the man gets over is an inspiration to all. Needless to say, there are a lot of nerve-racking details that led to songs like "The Rock," "Mr. Sticks" and "Mirror Walls," but the beauty of their power is in the discovery of their story. Rock music these days can be a dicey affair, but Deer Tick proves there is still a lot of life left in the pursuit. And for the hopelessly sentimental, try "Just Friends," with all-time lines like "When you stare from across the room/I can't tell if you're looking at me/or just looking through/the others celebrate the end of the work week/but it's Tuesday to me and you/to say that we're just friends would never do us justice/we're a couple of gems/ swept into the dustbin." Go, Johnny, go.
Johnny Rawls, Remembering O.V. Talk about courage — deciding to record an album of songs associated with soul giant O.V. Wright is not child's play. Johnny Rawls was Wright's bandleader for several years before Wright's untimely death in 1980. He learned his lessons well, that's for sure. There aren't many out there now who would dare to take on songs like "Nickel and a Nail," "Blind, Crippled and Crazy," "Eight Men, Four Women" and "Ace of Spades." O.V. Wright had a way of projecting passion that could be blinding. He stood dead center on stage, and just sang. Fans who were in the know during his first run at success in the mid-'60s until the early '70s remember a man who could not be equaled. His recordings on the Backbeat Records label still stand at scorched-earth soul at its very strongest.
Johnny Rawls gets into that same neighborhood. Maybe he doesn't have producer Willie Mitchell to lead the way quite like Wright did, but Rawls learned first-hand what this music is about and there's no way he's going to get lost. He's also smart enough to call in singer Otis Clay on three songs, just to reinforce the troops. If a lot of rhythm and blues today sounds like a reformulation of a style rather than an inspiration, Remembering O.V. is a ready remedy. This is soul music from the source, showing how freeing that music can be. It's a sound that was born in church, found traction during a period of trying turmoil during the Civil Rights era, and helped lead listeners to a brand new land. Even if it won't come again, there are still loving attempts at greatness like this album to lend a hand now. Johnny Rawls was right there with one of the greatest soul singers ever, and gives hope the legacy can still inspire listeners to discover that eternal power. Wright on.
Boz Scaggs, The Essential Boz Scaggs. For someone who's been recording for over 45 years it's heartening to realize it's all pretty much essential. Boz Scaggs is someone who is capable of living in a lot of different worlds, and each one feels right. After an impossible-to-find solo album released in Europe in the mid-'60s, Scaggs moved to San Francisco and joined Texas high school buddy Steve Miller's band, contributing "Baby's Calling Me Home" to Miller's debut release. From there has been an extended study in diversity, starting in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and traveling to different recording studios only to hit Memphis this year for one of the best sets of his career. This kind of achievement doesn't happen by accident. Scaggs is grounded in rhythm and blues, but never fears stylistic excursions wherever he wants to go. There have been massive hits like "Lowdown" and "Lido Shuffle," and personal excursions like "Miss Riddle." The common denominator is a voice that sounds like no one else, and continues to grow no matter what or where he's recording.
Scoring a classic right off the bat with 1969's mesmerizing "Loan Me a Dime" track featuring Duane Allman on an absolutely burning lead guitar, the music continued to twist and turn through "We Were Always Sweethearts," "Dinah Flo," "Slow Dancer" and the '70s-defining Silk Degrees album. Nothing could really top that, but throughout the '80s, '90s and this century Boz Scaggs always sounds like he's pushing onward. Because of his background in the thrilling live scene that was San Francisco in the '60s, he's got live playing in his DNA. No matter how accomplished his recordings can be, there is always an element of the experimental close to Scaggs' heart. Those that ventured West during Haight-Ashbury heyday were always about the search. Hearing Scaggs' recent excursion to Memphis on "Gone Baby Gone" at the end of this double-disc compilation is to know that journey is always unfolding, and the best could still be dead ahead.