New albums you should know about by people I know: Black 47, Christine Ohlman & Rebel Montez, Jenny Dee & the Deelinquents

Black 47's latest album is "Bankers & Gangsters." From left: Thomas Hamlin, Joe Burcaw, Larry Kirwan, Fred Parcells, Geoffrey Blythe and Joseph Mulvanerty.

(Note: After a far-too-lengthy pause due to burnout, I’m getting back into doing something I’ve always enjoyed: reviewing albums.

If you have a new CD — and it has to be available in CD format — or know of an album I should hear one way or the other, drop me a line at franoramaworld@gmail.com.)

Spring brings not only a renewal of life, but the awakening of the music world from its long winter slumber. And a personal slumber as well, as I get back into reviewing albums, which I started doing as a high school junior (“NRBQ at Yankee Stadium,” spring 1978). I might as well ease into it with three released in the past month by people I know — Black 47, Christine Ohlman & Rebel Montez and Jenny Dee & the Deelinquents:

Black 47 — Bankers & Gangsters (United for Opportunity): The Irish rockers from New York, led by Wexford native Larry Kirwan, spent the first decade-plus of their career following a set formula of sorts. Their ’90s albums adhered to a recipe that worked: a smattering of vivid slices of life (and occasionally autobiography) from New York and Ireland (“Funky Ceili,” “Maria’s Wedding,” “Rockin’ the Bronx,” “Czechoslovakia,” a different take on “Danny Boy”); some martyrs for the Irish cause (James Connolly, Michael Collins, Bobby Sands); and other personal heroes of Kirwan (Bobby Kennedy, Paul Robeson, Rory Gallagher).

But then a funny thing happened. Well, actually, it wasn’t funny at all. It was the Cheney years. 9/11. Thousands of New Yorkers dead (including some of the band’s fans). The trumped-up search for WMDs. The end result was two studio albums (2004’s “New York Town” and 2008’s “Iraq,” based on letters from fans stationed there) that reflected the strange times in which they lived. They were more somber in tone overall, more reflective affairs — well-done albums, but not necessarily the type of discs that will spur people to want to listen (for a parallel, look how long it took for an Iraq war film to connect with the public, and then it took an Oscar nomination) or buy in mass quantities.

Nine years later, and now into decade No. 3, the old Black 47 is finally back. Maybe it’s the change of administration, the cautious optimism of a new decade, or feeling some competition from younger-skewing Celtic-minded bands, or a bit of all the above. Don’t let the obvious subject material of the title tune fool you — the damper’s been opened and the fire’s burning more intensely than it has in years.

They blast out of the starting gate with one of the best tunes on the disc, “Long Hot Summer Coming On,” a recollection of the ghosts of the punk days of Kirwan’s beloved Lower East Side of Manhattan (“Led by Captain Kristal,” as in late CBGB owner Hilly Kristal), and keep up the heat with another steamy gem, “That Summer Dress,” with just a dash of sped-up reggae. On both occasions, the band’s ultra-tight horn section (Geoffrey Blythe on sax, Fred Parcells on trombone and Joseph Mulvanerty on pipes) finds the heart of the song quickly and doesn’t let go.

“Celtic Rocker” is a catchy tale of a teenager who falls for a rock musician and goes whole-hog, ditching the J. Crew for Irish rock and punk (with name-checks of Flogging Molly, Dropkick Murphys, The Young Dubliners, The Clash and, natch, Black 47). It bursts with a mix of sax-based ’70s rock, as well as touches of everything from punk to The Beatles — and let’s not forget the occasional forays into manic reels. Black 47 will never go full-fury like Molly or the Dropkicks — that’s not their style — but Kirwan lets the younger listeners know they know a thing or two. Or three or … well, 47.

And when Kirwan rests on time-honored topics, the result is more fun than one would expect. “Izzy’s Irish Rose,” a turn-of-last-century love story of a Jewish guy and his Irish wife, combines a lilting Irish melody with a frantic bit of klezmer sax from Blythe. His hero tunes this time (“Yeats and Joyce,” “Long Lost Tapes of Hendrix” and “Red Hugh,” about late-16th Irish rebel Hugh O’Donnell) tend to drag some, but this album’s martyr tune strikes a resonant chord. That would be “Rosemary (Nelson),” a remembrance of an Irish human rights lawyer killed in a 1999 car bombing. It combines an ominous tone and a swaying melody with blaring horns, snarly guitar and a touch of the Clash dub sound circa “Black Market Clash.”

Sometimes formula isn’t a bad thing, especially when an artist finds a way to make it fresh again. Kirwan and his Black 47 mates had to spend a career eternity in the wilderness — and managed to survive it well enough — before coming back to the sounds that established them as one of the best bands in America in the ’90s. This is a disc that will get plenty of playtime by all the cool kids on noncommercial, internet and satellite radio as summer nears.

Christine Ohlman & Rebel Montez — The Deep End (HMG): Christine Ohlman should have been big and famous a long time ago.

Connecticut’s “Beehive Queen,” with her white ‘do piled high, has been belting out brassily for more than three decades now, going back to The Scratch Band in the late ’70s with guitarist G.E. Smith. For the last 20 years — first with Smith as bandleader, now Lenny Pickett — Ohlman has sung with the “Saturday Night Live” band.

Her other gig has been her bar band, Rebel Montez. Hundreds of gigs in small-to-middlin’ clubs, lots of booze in the crowd, lots of sweat, lots of shouting and wailing and high intensity, an occasional album release — an old-school approach to the old-fashioned notion that if you play great music and work your ass off, great things will happen. But for some reason or another, they haven’t. Yet. Maybe now, with the release of her first album in over six years.

She’s been through a lot since “Strip” in 2003 — namely, the deaths of her producer and partner in music and life, Doc Cavalier, and her lead guitarist, Eric Fletcher. This time around, Ohlman has relied on a little help from her friends, names you’d know if you know rock’n’roll. And the end result? Well, with a mighty voice like hers and talent like theirs, she should hit the jackpot this time. Besides, what’s wrong with this picture: a woman who has been good enough to work with her share of legends can’t achieve megasuccess on her own?

Andy York, John Mellencamp’s longtime guitarist, took over the production and contributed some guitar. (Listen to “Bring It With You When You Come” and tell me you don’t hear “Walls Come Tumbling Down.”) The end result is a tough, hard, solid album that spends equal shares of time in the swamps, in virtual Memphis and in the racks of record archives.

“There Ain’t No Cure” kicks off the album with mean, snarling, throbbing swamp guitar, courtesy of York and Rebels guitarist Cliff Goodwin, some rough-hewn backing vocals from Ian Hunter and — befitting a SNL performer — more cowbell. It stands up to any bar, any Saturday night. That sound carries over into “Born to Be Together” and “Love Makes You Do Stupid Things” (with Eric Ambel of Del-Lords fame playing).

You’d swear you were listening to a Stax side if you stumbled upon “Like Honey.” Slow and reflective, Ohlman shows her rare subtle side here; Goodwin conjures Steve Cropper backing an Otis Redding ballad, with the Asbury Jukes horns. Her tale of profound loss, “The Gone of You,” is powerful enough to appear twice, in a full-on Memphis-style production and York’s demo version.

And Ohlman and friends had fun digging into the record piles for remakes. She called on a Detroit native who knows his stuff, Marshall Crenshaw, for a very playful take of the Marvin Gaye/Mary Wells hit “What’s the Matter With You Baby.” (Levon Helm also pitched in.) Fletcher is honored posthumously with his version of Link Wray’s “Walkin’ Down the Street.” But the best of the covers is “Cry Baby Cry,” an obscure 1968 soul side by Van & Titus, complete with the church organ intro; Ohlman and Dion DiMucci turn their duet into an appropriately spiritual experience.

For the most infectious tune on the disc, though, Ohlman called on another Connecticut legend. Big Al Anderson of NRBQ and Wildweeds fame, who has a deceptively powerful guitar sound, chipped in a serious vibrato on “Love You Right,” a nifty recording with Buddy Holly overtones. Anderson also joined her for the title tune, a more reflective selection with shades of Memphis beneath the acoustic guitar.

Here’s the question I would pose to you if you’re the program director of a “classic” “rock” station: What is it about this album that would prevent you from playing it on your station? This is a gifted singer with a mighty voice, working with some people you’ve heard of. It’s perfectly suited for your audience — especially the slightly older listeners tired of hearing the 14,000th rehash of Skynyrd or Zeppelin or Foghat. Do you think you could find it in yourself to give this album, and this artist, a fighting chance? I’m still holding out hope one of you will give Christine Ohlman a chance, especially with this argument of a CD to back me up.

Jenny Dee & the Deelinquents — Keeping Time (Q-Dee): Jen D’Angora of Boston is a woman with a voice so strong and versatile that one band isn’t enough to contain her. Since the early 2000s, she’s been singing and playing guitar with The Downbeat 5, a blistering punk-meets-garage-meets-’60s R&B combo featuring her ex-husband, JJ Rassler (from Boston’s legendary late-’70s punk/garage band, DMZ). At the same time, she was also in the punk/pop group The Dents.

And in the past couple years, after the demise of The Dents and the Downbeats cutting back on their playing, she has channeled the ’60s girl-group sound — the same way Debbie Harry did The Shangri-La’s in the early days of Blondie — and formed yet another band. Enter Jenny Dee & the Deelinquents: Jen, sister Beka D’Angora and the statuesque Samantha Goddess, and a crack band of backing guys including Jen’s current hubby, bassist Ed Valauskas (late of The Gravel Pit, New Haveners-turned-Boston alt-rock darlings in the ’90s), and ultra-talented keyboardist Phil Aiken.

If you think about it, the Deelinquents are the pop equivalent of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings (whose new album is on deck). They have strong women up front, a sharp bunch of guys in the back, and a vibe that seems to have been hermetically sealed in the mid-’60s (complete, in this case, with a supply of Aqua Net, or at least Dippity-Do), but one that’s attached to a modern sensibility and awareness and drive. Plus, they’re catchy as all hell. This is a debut album that shouts — in three-part harmony — breakout.

My first experience with them was a late-February show at Cafe Nine in New Haven, a birthday party for Ed’s sister Shellye (a fine singer/songwriter in her own right). The band dazzled with their own repertoire of tunes, plus some ear-opening covers: “Shake Some Action” by The Flamin’ Groovies, “Needle in a Haystack” by The Velvelettes (a lesser-known Motown girl group), a killer “Right Now and Not Later” (an obscure Shangri-Las single with a serious Motown feel) — and, since they’re Bostonians, their take on the J. Geils Band version of Bobby Womack’s “Lookin’ for a Love.”

“Shake Some Action” is included on the album; if you can wrap your mind around a piano instead of Cyril Jordan’s signature guitar sound — which shouldn’t take long — you’re in for a total treat. The driving beat reminds me, in an odd way, of Elvis Costello’s “Get Happy!” remake of Betty Everett’s “Getting Mighty Crowded.” D’Angora is a force without being overpowering, and the voices in unison are this shy of angelic.

But the originals will make you want to stick around — especially the title song, an instant classic. The stomping drive, the harmonies, the layers, the keyboards, the hooks — all crammed into an exhilarating 2 1/2 minutes — it’s incredible. You can hear D’Angora, through the speakers, wagging her finger at the boy in this cautionary tale. Mary Weiss of The Shangri-Las would be proud to hear this one if she hasn’t already.

That’s not the only tune that owes its pedigree to The Shangri-Las. The piano ballad “Love in Ruins” is a musical first cousin of “Past, Present and Future.” And “Let Me Go,” a mid-tempo piece of pop candy, is The Shangri-La’s filtered through Blondie.

And this is a most clever band, finding its inspiration from other cool sources in its collectve record collection as well. “More Fun to Beat ‘Em,” with its violins, pizzicato plucking and finger-snapping, recalls another New York girl group of the era, Reparata & the Delrons. “Big Ol’ Heart” mixes a little of Robert Parker’s “Barefootin'” with a Tina Turner-style vocal delivery. And “Do It All Over” plunders the J. Geils songbook for its intro — flat-out stolen from the Geils intro to The Contours’ “First I Look at the Purse” — before going off in another soul-belter direction.

What’s there not to like about this album? If you like the ’60s girl sound, if you like ’60s R&B, if you like stylin’ women with strong voices, if you appreciate ace musicianship, if you dig overt musical references to things past — and if you just like living and moving to good music — you’ll love this. Anyone up for a Dap-Kings/Deelinquents tour? I know I’d be.

(For disclosure’s sake: I was given an advance copy of the Black 47 album; I bought the other two.)

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4 Responses to “New albums you should know about by people I know: Black 47, Christine Ohlman & Rebel Montez, Jenny Dee & the Deelinquents”

  1. blake Says:

    Good to see you diving back into music writing. Funny thing: there was a group called the Dents at our high school.

  2. jmucci Says:

    I agree with Blake….definitely great to see you doing some album reviews. I’ll have to check these albums out. Keep the reviews coming Fran!!

  3. The Super Bowl (and the blog), a year later « Franorama World Says:

    […] – writing — that took away some of the uselessness I’ve felt being unemployed. I started reviewing albums again, something I hadn’t done in years, save for an occasional Amazon post. Girl got her mojo […]

  4. Beka dangora | Usadirectworld Says:

    […] New albums you should know about by people I know: Black 47 … Comments Off […]

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