May 2023 Rock/Pop Record Reviews

John Lee Hooker: Burnin'
Vee Jay/Craft Recordings CR00544 (LP). 2023. No prod. or eng. listed.
Performance *****
Sonics ****

Though it's often forgotten in the wake of Motown's success, there was also a blues scene in Detroit in which no one loomed larger than John Lee Hooker. Cut at a single session in 1962 in Chicago, Burnin' has been reissued by Craft on 180gm vinyl.

Hooker, who began his career playing solo, rockin' joints with his upbeat crowd pleasers put over by his growling vocal delivery, decided here to play with a group of musicians imported from Detroit, including Benny "Papa Zita" Benjamin and the great James Jamerson, the two most famous and talented members of the legendary house band at Motown, The Funk Brothers. Also on the record are Hank Cosby and Andrew "Mike" Terry on tenor and baritone saxes, respectively, Joe Hunder on piano, and Larry Veeder on guitar.

The opening track, the inimitable stomp "Boom Boom," was undoubtedly the biggest hit of Hooker's career. Two years later, it became a hit for The Animals. Like most Hooker tunes, it's about women, in this case the desirable variety: "I love to see you strut/up and down the floor/When you talkin' to me/That baby talk/I like it like that." Along the way, Hooker lets out a "How, How, How," an exclamation appropriated later by ZZ Top for their hit, "La Grange."

Double standards abound. "Johnny" won't stay home and settle down in "Lost a Good Girl," but that's exactly what Hooker wants his woman to do in "Drug Store Woman." The band adds a lot to these tunes, verging on rock'n'roll in "Let's Make It," with an unexpected rhumba beat on "Keep Your Hands to Yourself." Remastered from the original analog tapes by Kevin Gray at Cohearant, the impressively quiet pressing from Memphis Record Pressing—the 1962 originals don't sound bad—adds space to the mix, with Hooker farther forward and the band spread farther to the rear. Essential.—Robert Baird

Paramore: This Is Why
Atlantic Records (16/44.1 FLAC stream/Qobuz). 2023. Carlos de la Garza, prod.; Harriet Tam, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics *****

Coming nearly six years after Tennessee-based Paramore's previous album, This Is Why is a welcome arrival. Lead singer Hayley Williams made two solo albums in the intervening years, which partially explains the band's studio silence. It's good to hear Williams collaborating again with guitarist Taylor York and drummer Zac Farro on this latest effort.

As with the band's first five albums, the main influences continue to be punk and indie rock. But here the sonic ingenuity is enhanced at the hands of producer Carlos de la Garza and engineer Harriet Tam, who create a relief map of intense textures. Shimmering distortion on the guitars on "Crave" contrasts the clarity of the drum-kit sound. The natural resonance of woodwinds is intriguingly synthesized in "Figure 8." "Running Out of Time" blossoms into a kaleidoscope of bending guitar pitches and layered percussion.

Beyond the sound quality, the main draws are the songs themselves and Williams's wide range in both vocal register and emotion. Consistent with the punk tradition, anger is an essential ingredient, as in "The News," where the rhythm's wildness mirrors the insanity of world events and their media coverage.

Other songs are snide: "Big Man, Little Dignity" finds the narrator admiring a man across the room, but it's soon clear that she's only amazed by his vacuousness and privilege.

And then there's Williams's dour lost-girl role, a staple of her Paramore repertoire. "I am a magnet for broken pieces / I am attracted to broken people," she keens in "Thick Skull." It may sound pathetic, but it's effective, thanks partly to her husky-voiced delivery and partly to the skillful, poignant placement of a rest after the word "broken" in each line. With songwriting like this, Paramore continues to be a relevant force in indie rock.—Anne E. Johnson

New Order: Low-Life (Definitive Edition)
Warner 0825646253012 (1 LP, 2 CD, 2 DVD, Book) New Order, Rich Osborn & Trish Macgregor, prod.; Michael Johnson, eng.
Performance *****
Sonics ****

Power, Corruption and Lies (1983) is regarded by many as New Order's masterpiece. Well, maybe so, but the album that followed it, Low-Life, is pretty damn tasty, too. Incorporating more synths, they built on the success of the single "Blue Monday," combining post-punk and dance music.

Here, Low-Life gets the super-deluxe treatment, similar to what that previous album received in 2020. The price is the price, and it isn't cheap, but you get a lot for your money. First there's the lush packaging—positively a work of art—and then there is an impressive book, featuring photos and interviews with the band describing the growth of each song. The band's Mancunian wit ensures it never becomes boring.

And what of the music? The album itself, included on both CD and 180gm vinyl, is as magnificent as ever. The remastering gives it extra bounce. But it's the other included stuff that will entice punters and many fans. Two DVDs contain footage of five 1985 live concerts from a time when the band was getting into gear. It's not slick, but it is invigorating. Bernard Summer's frail vocals and understated guitar, Stephen Morris's strategic drumming, Peter Hook's thumping bass, and Gillian Gilbert's keyboards increasingly mesh as the band moves further away from convenient, lazy, music tags.

In addition to the Low-Life numbers, other classic numbers enjoy sweaty workouts, such as, from the Leuven date, Joy Division's "Atmosphere" and the band's own "Blue Monday." The Extras CD is also full of gems, "The Perfect Kiss" and "Sunrise" being just two examples. From the "Writing Session Recordings," these are more basic, under-construction, guitar- and bass-based songs, the rock glinting beneath the polished dance. This last bit may be mainly for die-hard completist New Order fans, but if that describes you, you will love it.—Phil Brett

Yo La Tengo: This Stupid World
Matador Records OLE1929 (LP). 2023. Yo La Tengo, prod.; James McNew, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Age has privileges and advantages. Nearing 40 years together, Yo La Tengo has earned the trust and freedom to write and play whatever they feel or want to say. Over the years, they've explored most avenues, from soul to indie pop, laconic country to outright noise. Now nearing 20 albums to their name (depending on how you count collaborations), this most textural of all indie rock bands has made another masterpiece to add to its oeuvre.

Following a five-song 2020 pandemic record, We Have Amnesia Sometimes, which seemed like an enjoyable jam tape, guitarist Ira Kaplan, drummer Georgia Hubley, and bassist James McNew have returned on This Stupid World, an LP whose sonics vary from deliberately noisy to wonderfully crisp and detailed, depending upon the song.

What's new here (though not entirely unexpected for a band with a 66-year-old guitarist) is that time, as in how much of it is left, has become an obsession. Set to a perky, quasi-Brazilian rhythm, "Until It Happens" is blunt about what's ahead: "Prepare to die/prepare yourself while there's still time/it's simple to do/and then it happens to you." Most accessible are the likable chords of "Fallout," a classic example of the band's gift for sweet guitar pop. Kaplan fights time, wishing to "Hold back unwind/before it lays me flat."

Produced by the band and featuring the trio playing live together in the studio, a gentle side arises in "Aselestine" as Hubley sings softly over a gentle bed of pedal-steel effects, offering, "Where are you, the drugs don't do what you said they do." The opener, "Sinatra Drive Breakdown," is an exercise in trust, as Kaplan sings in plaintive voice before fussing through fuzzy guitar freakouts while Hubley and McNew stay the course with a steady snare and bass beat. This indie rock institution still has much left to say.—Robert Baird