Friday, December 18, 2009

Tony's Picks - 2009

It's that time of year where music critics everywhere list their "Top 10" music picks of the year. As for me, I didn't hear a whole lot of "new" stuff, but of what I did hear this year, here are my thoughts.

New Music

Alice in Chains – Black Gives Way to Blue

For me, this was the surprise release of 2009. This band is literally back from the dead. Lead singer Layne Staley died from a drug overdose in 2002, and guitarist/songwriter Jerry Cantrell hasn’t released anything since his 2002 album Degradation Trip Vols 1 & 2. With new singer William DuVall in tow, the band put together an album that finally fuses the elements of their best work [the electric Dirt and acoustic Jar of Flies] into one album. Black Gives Way to Blue is their first collection of new music since 1995 [the Alice in Chains CD]. The ease with which AIC fuses Black Sabbath menace with Beatles melodic sense is still there. William DuVall does not try to copy Layne Staley, but still manages to pull off the great harmonies with Jerry Cantrell that highlighted the band’s previous work. Cantrell’s sludgy-yet-melodic guitar is still present in spades. A new beginning indeed, and a very welcome one at that.

Heaven & Hell – The Devil You Know
Formerly known as the Ronnie James Dio-version of Black Sabbath, Dio, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, and drummer Vinny Appice finally record a follow-up to 1992’s Dehumanizer. In order to keep their fans from confusing them with the original Black Sabbath [and to keep Sharon Osbourne out of the picture legally], these guys renamed themselves after the Black Sabbath album of the same name. The Devil You Know is everything you’d expect from these guys – ear-splitting, skullcrushing, gorilla-stomping riffage. With Tony Iommi’s face-melting riffs, Geezer Butler’s pummeling bass, and vocalist Ronnie James Dio in top form, The Devil You Know is a more-than-worthy addition to the Black Sabbath/Heaven & Hell canon. A must-have for metalheads. On a side note, Ronnie James Dio has stomach cancer. The docs caught it early, so I think Ronnie will slay this dragon. Cross your fingers.

Gov’t Mule – By a Thread
With all due respect to the late James Brown, Warren Haynes is now the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. When Warren isn’t recording and touring with his own band Gov’t Mule, he’s touring with the Allman Brothers Band or The Dead. And when he isn’t doing any of that stuff, he’s working on solo stuff. After having recorded Déjà Voodoo, High & Mighty and Mighty High with Andy Hess on the bass, Gov’t Mule has a new bass player in the form of Jorgen Carlsson. He’s a more “in your face” kind of player in the mold of the late Allen Woody, Gov’t Mule’s founding bassist. The songs on By a Thread reflect that aggressive attitude. Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top makes a guest appearance on the opening Broke Down on the Brazos. It's fun to hear The Rev. Willie G. and Warren swap solos. My favorite is Railroad Boy, a smoking arrangement of a traditional blues song. Not far behind are the Hendrix-esque Any Open Window and Inside Outside Woman Blues #3. Almost every Gov’t Mule album ends with a long, slow bluesy number. World Wake Up, recorded while Andy Hess was still in the band, is it for this album. It has a weird Pink Floyd-like vibe. It’s a good way to end an album. By a Thread is not as good as Dose or Life Before Insanity, but it’s a helluva lot better than their last effort, the way-below sub-par dub-mix Mighty High. It’s pretty good.

The Allman Brothers Band – Live at the Beacon Theatre, New York 3/19/09 & 3/20/09
This year commemorates the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Allman Brothers Band. To celebrate this milestone, the band dedicated every one of the shows they played a during their 2009 Beacon Theatre run to Gregg’s older brother Duane. During the Beacon run, the Brothers played with many guest stars, a lot of whom knew Duane personally and worked with him “back in the day.” I got these two shows for one reason – it’s the first [and so far only] time that Eric Clapton ever shared a stage with the Allman Brothers Band. Duane was an integral part of the Derek and the Dominos album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, which is beyond any doubt EC’s masterpiece. Since the shows were a tribute to Duane Allman, EC was a must-have for the tribute. On both nights the band would play classics from Eat a Peach, Brothers & Sisters, At Fillmore East, then they’d bring out EC to finish the show. They played several selections from the Layla album [Key to the Highway, Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad, Anyday, Little Wing, and Layla], plus selected ABB songs [Stormy Monday, Dreams, In Memory of Elizabeth Reed]. Layla was the encore for both nights. I’ve heard other shows over the years where Warren Haynes took the lead vocal for this song, but for this special occasion, EC did the deed – it is his song after all. Not only are these shows historic, but the musicianship is fantastic. It was every ABB junkie’s fantasy finally coming true. It’s not likely the Allman Brothers Band will ever record another studio album, so I have to be satisfied with these live releases.

Ricky Skaggs – Solo: Songs My Dad Loved
If ever there was truth in advertising in an album title, this is it. Ricky Skaggs has an outstanding bluegrass group called Kentucky Thunder, but on this CD, this is Ricky Skaggs the one-man band. Ricky sings all the songs, overdubbed all the harmonies himself, and played guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass and piano. Unlike his albums with Kentucky Thunder, some of which contain a warning that listening to them will cause speeding tickets, this one has a more relaxed pace. Containing many traditional bluegrass numbers, this is a logical follow-up of the concept he did with his previous album from 2008, Honoring the Fathers of Bluegrass: Tribute to 1946 & 1947. This is an excellent CD from an outstanding musician.

Levon Helm – Electric Dirt
Band singers Rick Danko and Richard Manuel are still dead, Garth Hudson is performing piano and vocal works with his wife as well as continuing as a much-in-demand session musician, and Robbie Robertson has confined himself to creating music for movies. That leaves Levon Helm, the lone American in The Band, to carry the torch for The Band. Electric Dirt, the follow-up to 2008’s Dirt Farmer, is full of blues-gospel shouters, soul-country laments, New Orleans jazz, and mountain-folk reveries. Not bad for a guy who almost lost his voice to throat cancer.

Bob Dylan – Together Through Life
This album originally started as one song. Director Oliver Dahan, the guy who made the movie La Vie en Rose about French singer Edith Piaf, approached Bob Dylan to contribute a song for his new movie My Own Love Song. Dylan gave him Life is Hard, but he soon found himself on a songwriting roll, and Together Through Life was born. Once again recorded with his road band, this album showcases not only a very tight band that can play honky-tonk roadhouse blues with a Tex-Mex flavor. The real fun is the lyrics – they’re Dylan at his caustic, sarcastic best and are [dare I say] fun. Included are tales of lustful desire [Jolene], henpecked husbands [My Wife’s Home Town – which, BTW, is Hell], repentant drunks [If You Ever Go To Houston] .. Then there is Dylan’s latest vision of the apocalypse, It’s All Good. The story starts off bad ("Big politician telling lies/Restaurant kitchen, all full of flies/Don't make a bit of difference"), and gets worse ("Brick by brick, they tear you down/A teacup of water is enough to drown"). In Dylan’s America, it’s survival of the fittest. When Dylan was much younger, he wanted to sound old. He’s there now, sounding grizzly, pissed off and lusty, all at once. Is this Dylan’s best since Blood on the Tracks? No [that honor goes to 2001’s “Love & Theft”], but this album is still worthy of more than just the occasional listen. Unless you’re my wife Carol, in which case “the less heard the better.” After all, Bob is an acquired taste.

Tom Waits – Glitter and Doom Live
What can be said about Tom Waits? On Wikipedia I read the following about his voice: it sounded "like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.” Good enough for me – I can’t think of anything better. Tom Waits’ voice is unique – it is his instrument. One cannot pigeonhole his music – he’s all over the stylistic map. He draws inspiration from folk, blues, country, jazz ballads, polkas, waltzes, cabaret, swing, popular ballads. In addition to the standard guitar/bass/drums/piano, he also uses such instruments and objects as such instruments and objects as the marimba; trombone; brake drum; banjo; bell plate; bullhorn; conga; accordion; mellotron; maracas; pump organ; basstarda; chamberlain; harmonium; viola; sticks; chairs and musical saw . His label’s website describes his live shows as “part distorted vaudeville, part big top, part piano bar and part stand-up, live shows are meticulously orchestrated to have all the grace and excitement of a derailing train.” That sums up what Glitter and Doom Live sounds like. It captures all those elements. It’s a two-disc set. The first disc is 17 songs recorded in various cities on his 2008 tour. That’s a shame because I got bored one day and counted the number of different songs he did on that tour – I think it was around 64, give or take a couple. But there is a podcast of the entire Atlanta show on NPR’s website. It’s a must-have for, well, ME! As far as the song selection goes, Tom Waits sticks to stuff released after 1990. The second disc is “Tom’s Tales.” These are lots of monlogues that he does in between songs that are all spliced together into one 36-minute recording. We get treated to such things as “Do you know how many omelets you can get out of an ostrich egg? Fourteen . . . that’s a lot of omelets. I’ve gotten along with most of the ostriches I’ve met.” "Shrimp -- they never give anything to charity. That always bothered me until someone told me, well, basically, they're shellfish." I learned the origin of the phrase of 'graveyard shift' and 'dead ringer'. I learned about Nazi alphabet soup. I wish I saw this tour. It sounds like it was a long, strange but very enjoyable trip.

Archive Releases

Neil Young – Archives Volume 1 [1963-72]
This sucker has been in the works for over 20 years, but it finally saw the light of day in three formats – Blu-Ray, DVD, and CD. If you want the Blu-Ray or DVD versions, take out a second mortgage. The eight-CD version is much more affordable. This volume of the archives covers NY’s beginnings in Canada, through his days with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and his work under his own name with and without Crazy Horse. Basically, these are the songs that made Neil Young famous. There’s quite a bit of previously-unreleased material here, different versions and/or mixes, and rare tracks. The stuff that has been released before sounds infinitely better than the CDs on which these tunes were originally released. Also included are complete solo acoustic shows in Toronto in 1969 and 1971, and a 1970 show with Crazy Horse recorded at New York’s Fillmore East. Hardcore NY fans probably have most of this stuff, but with the remastered sound, this archive is worth every penny.

The entire Beatles catalog remastered

Ok, what is understood need not be discussed. The entire Beatles catalog was finally remastered and unleashed on the world on Sept 9th, 2009 [Number 9, Number 9, Number 9…]. They all sound great. Buy them!

Friday, October 9, 2009

It's Johnny's Birthday...

This is a very short song from George Harrison’s first album after the break-up of the Beatles, All Things Must Pass. The “Johnny” he sang about was his old partner in madness, John Lennon. October 9th, 1940 is the day John Lennon came kicking and screaming into this world (or was it singing? I don’t know which…). Had he been alive, he would have been 69 this year. Rather than wait until the anniversary of his death to put pen to paper and express some thoughts about John Lennon, for once I thought I’d do it on or near the anniversary of his birth.

Every Beatles fan has a favorite. Many people say that Paul is their favorite. He was the “cute one.” My sister’s favorite was George. My wife’s favorite was George. He was “the Quiet Beatle.” Mine was John. He was way different than the others. He was from a different planet. He wasn’t the best all-around musician of the group (that would be Paul), or he wasn’t the best guitar player either (that would be George), but he did have a very quick wit, had a wicked sense of humor with a keen gift for words, and damn he could sing! If you need any evidence on that last point, give “Twist and Shout” a spin. Or "Yer Blues" from the White Album, or "I Want You [She's So Heavy]" from Abbey Road. That’s all you need. He was “the weird one,” which above all else is probably the reason he is my favorite Beatle. He was the one among the group that would be the first to face the fire. In short, he was the pack leader.

I became a Beatles fan at a very young age, and it’s all my sister’s fault. She’s 12 years older than I am. She experienced Beatlemania as a teenager. She gave me my very first record. She probably gave it to me so I would stay out of her room while she was at school (obnoxious little meddlesome kid that I was – some things never change). It was the song “Help!” - a 45 on the old Capitol yellow-and-orange swirl label. It was a “John” song. It’s my favorite song to this day. Only “Comfortably Numb” from Pink Floyd even comes close. My poor mother - she had two Beatlemaniacs in the family. She put up with Beatlemania during the ‘60s, and when I was old enough to start buying records of my own, she got it again.

John Lennon was the one who would be more willing than the others to experiment with sounds on his songs. When I first got “Help!” I just thought it was a neat little 2-minute song. When you’re three or four years old, your thoughts don’t go any deeper than that. It was just a cool song. It was only when I got older, a lot older, that I realized “Help!” was one of the Beatles’ first songs that wasn’t a love song. It was a real cry for “Help!”, which I thought was odd because here you’ve got this guy who was (at the time) one of the biggest pop stars on the planet, yet he was miserable. This was the first of many autobiographical songs. “Nowhere Man”, “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”, “In My Life”, “A Day in the Life”, “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, “Cold Turkey”, “Watching the Wheels”, “Beautiful Boy” – all of the autobiographical variety. “Strawberry Fields Forever” is another such song, but it’s different – very different. It started off as a very simple song that John wrote while filming “How I Won the War” in Almeria, Spain after the Beatles quit touring in 1966. As it began to take shape in the studio, it became a production masterpiece. Plainly put, it’s a very cool “headphone” song. It’s got some very clever words – “living is easy with eyes closed/misunderstanding all you see,” "nothing is real/nothing to get hung about," “no one I think is in my tree.”

Then there’s the “weird” songs. These are the ones that I think capture John’s unconventional essence. “Rain”, the flip side of Paul’s “Paperback Writer,” fits into this category because of the last verse - it's sung backwards. The circumstances of this came about because John got stoned after the recording session for “Rain,” recorded during the "Revolver" sessions. He took a tape of the song home to listen to, only he threaded the tape backwards onto his tape machine (well, he WAS stoned). Whilst in his stoned state he played the song and heard himself singing backwards. He liked what he heard, and that’s what ended up on the finished product. Also, the song was recorded at a slower than normal speed, so when played back AT normal speed the listener has the sensation of listening to someone who is groggy, sleepy or, dare I say it again, stoned. Also from the same “Revolver” period is the song “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the last song on the album. It was done like an Indian raga, all in the key of “C”. The song is a series of tape-looped sound effects, backwards-recorded guitar from George with a droning Indian sitar playing along (also done by George), and some very heavy drumming from Ringo. The lyrics come from John’s “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” period. Not satisfied with just the “instrumentation” he told George Martin, their producer, that he wanted to sound like the Dalai Lama singing from the top of the Himilayas. Somehow their recording engineer Geoff Emerick figured out how to run his voice through a Leslie rotating speaker from a Hammond organ, and the results were otherworldly. John loved what he heard, and so do I. You wouldn’t catch Paul creating work like this [not for public consumption, anyway] – he was too busy writing hit songs or other more "conventional" stuff, not that there’s anything wrong with that. “Sgt Pepper” was Paul’s baby, after all. "Abbey Road" was too. Don't get me wrong - I like a lot of Paul's songs. It's just that Paul's songs, while they were the hits with much greater appeal than John's sonic experiments, were also very "normal."

Then there are what I call “the Seinfeld songs” – songs about nothing. “I Am the Walrus” was one such Seinfeld song. One day while reading some of his fan mail, he came across one letter that told the tale of some music teacher trying to explain the meaning of Beatles songs. Thus inspired, he wrote a song that strung lots of nonsensical words together, accompanied by a string section written by George Martin that sounds as if he was tripping on acid. “Yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye” always grossed out my friend Brian when we were kids. The bit that always got me was “elementary penguins singing Hare Krisha/Man you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe.” To go along with the music, there’s a boy-girl choir adding “ho ho ho hee hee hee ha ha ha,” “oompa-oompa stick it in your joompa” in the background. While mixing the song, John plugged a radio into the mixing board and changed the station until he found a BBC production of Hamlet. This is probably one of the first examples of what’s known as “music concrete”, the introduction of non-musical elements into songs. This is a technique that Pink Floyd later used to great effect. The result is all very surreal. As for the song as a whole - go ahead, figure that one out – I dare you. It’ll give you an aneurism if you try. When he finished the song, John told one of his friends “there, let the fuckers try and figure that one out.” The result – another very cool "headphone" song. For the record, John WAS the Walrus, and it’s “goo goo ga joob”, not “koo koo ka choo.” While Paul came up with such songs as “Hello Goodbye” and “Penny Lane”, John was coming up with stuff like this. Any wonder why the Beatles broke up? Don’t blame Yoko – John and Paul just weren’t on the same page anymore.

John has two other “Seinfeld” songs – “Hey Bulldog” and “Come Together.” “Hey Bulldog” is from the Yellow Submarine soundtrack, but instead of using weird sound effects, surreal strings and the boy-girl choir, this is a straight ahead rocker (and it DOES rock). Recorded five months after “I Am the Walrus,” “Hey Bulldog” uses the same lyrical approach, but the musical approach was just straight-ahead rock and roll. When I burn CDs of Beatles songs I put these two one after another because lyrically they are similar in that they don’t mean a damn thing – just bits of words strung together. “Come Together” begins the Beatles’ last album they recorded, “Abbey Road.” Here is another song with bits of words strung together for poetic effect sung over a snakey, swampy song that John Fogerty would kill for.

John had his “message” songs as well. “Revolution”, “All You Need Is Love”, “Give Peace a Chance”, “Gimme Some Truth”, “Imagine.” I loved the song “Imagine” when I was a kid because I thought it was a good song with a nice melody. At that time I didn’t pay any attention to the words about “no heaven,” “no possessions,” “no countries”, and “living life in peace.” But those concepts (and the song) really annoy conservatives, so I like the song even more because of it. John’s been gone for almost 29 years and he can still annoy “the man.” Would the “artists” of today (and I use that phrase very loosely) have such an effect on people 29 years after they’re gone? Only Bob Dylan and Neil Young (both from John’s generation) come to mind. The others from today’s generation? I somehow doubt it.

John Lennon was murdered by a crazed fan on December 8th, 1980. I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news. I was watching Monday Night Football with my dad. The Miami Dolphins and the New England Patriots were playing. I have since forgotten the outcome of the game through the mists of time. Given what happened to John Lennon it didn’t matter. My first musical hero was dead and I was heartbroken. I remember at the time the Russians were getting ready to crack down on Poland and Solidarity. Walter Cronkite led off his broadcast the next day with a short mention of Poland, but he said the biggest news of the day was about “the death of a man who sang and played guitar.” I was 18 years old then. After all this time, I still miss him.

Happy Birthday John, wherever you are.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Alice in Chains

A long time ago at an Air Force base far, far away, the wife and I used to watch MTV. This was back in the day when the "M" in MTV stood for "music," and they used to show music videos. Every Saturday night we'd watch The Headbanger's Ball. We were young, just starting our lives together, didn't have a whole lot of money, so on Saturday nights we'd have nothing better to do than watch heavy metal videos. Back then, most of the heavy metal acts were of the "hair band" variety like Poison, Cinderella, Ratt, Dokken, Winger, Warrant, etc. Their music pretty much sounded the same, which is to say, lame. But one particular Saturday night in 1990 we saw a new band from Seattle. Their sound was different, as was their look. No hair spray or make-up for these guys - they were real. The band - Alice in Chains. The song was "Man in the Box." There was just something about having your eyes sewn shut that set them apart from everyone else and made you want more of the same. These guys were heavy, so heavy that I thought they were the demon spawn of Black Sabbath [not a bad thing, by the way]. The singer [Layne Staley] was this skinny little dude who sounded like he was this big fat sweaty guy who could put a lot of power into his vocals. The guitar player [Jerry Cantrell] was this dude from Oklahoma with long blonde hair, who played de-tuned G&L Rampage guitars [even the name of his guitar sounded cool]. This guy played skullcrushing chords like Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi, tasteful solos, used talk-box and wah-wah, and never tried to break the notes-per-second ethos of the day. He was like David Gilmour of Pink Floyd - when he played a solo, people paid attention. Jerry Cantrell was a triple threat. He wrote most of the songs, played excellent guitar, and was a damn fine harmony singer who took the occasional lead vocal.

Two years after Facelift [their debut] came Dirt, Alice in Chains' magnum opus. The themes of the album-drug addiction, loss, depression, regret, nihilism, hopelessness, come across as very real. The album has a thematic coherence that the singer is well and truly screwed, in a prison of his own making, and he knows it. You just knew these guys had been there, done that. And guess what - they had. Dirt generated three singles that got massive airplay - Down in a Hole, Rooster [a tribute to Jerry Cantrell's Vietnam-vet dad], and Would. I heard Would first because it was on the soundtrack to the movie Singles. That song was the hook that got me to want to follow Alice in Chains until the bitter end. Dirt can be very depressing, but serves as a warning - a sort of morality tale of "if you want to do heroin, look what it did to me." I read one review on that pretty much sums it up - "Each song has a terrific, intense riff, and one or two killer solos. These songs are instantly catchy and memorable. The songs combined the sludgy guitars and riffs of Black Sabbath, and the beauty and melody of the Beatles." A strange combination, but it's effective. It works!

In 1993 Alice in Chains confounded all expectations by following-up this sludgy, riff heavy album with an acoustic EP, Jar of Flies. The arrangements are lush, almost achingly beautiful. There is no heavy sledgehammer riffage to be found. Where Dirt has the subtlety of a piledriver, Jar of Flies derives it's power from Jerry Cantrell's undistorted guitar tones and more sparse arrangements. The themes expressed herein deal with acceptance the consequences of ones actions as told in Dirt, so Jar of Flies is a logical follow-up to Dirt. Such was the success of Dirt with the listening public, Jar of Flies debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts and spawned another single that received massive radio airplay, No Excuses. These records were quite the "one-two punch." They're that good. Put the two records on the same CD and you have an excellent combination of skullcrushing riffage with light and shade a la Led Zeppelin.

After Jar of Flies came a year of silence. We heard nothing from Alice in Chains. Rumors were rampant about Layne Staley's imminent demise due to drug abuse. Then in 1995 came the Alice in Chains CD. That's the one with the three-legged dog on the cover. This third CD had good songs like Heaven Beside You and Over Now, but it was a bit of a letdown for me. The letdown was not due to the songs, but to the album's production. It has no ambience to it, no spark. It feels like the life had been sucked out of the band and it's music. Alice in Chains was another #1 hit, but as fate would have it, it would be the last studio album by the band for fourteen years. In 1996 the band recorded a well-received Unplugged show for MTV. One hint of how things had been going for the band was a comment Layne Staley made about the Unplugged show being the best one they had played in three years, to which one of the bandmembers responded "Layne, it's the ONLY show we've played in three years." Two years later, the entire band would record just two more songs, Get Born Again and Died, for their Music Bank box set. These songs have the distinction of being the last Alice in Chains songs recorded with Layne Staley.

In 1998, Jerry Cantrell made a solo album, Boggy Depot, that was an Alice in Chains album in all but name. Most of the AIC elements are there - the AIC rhythm section of Sean Kinney and Mike Inez, heavy riffage, de-tuned sludgy guitars, and of course Jerry Cantrell's songs and voice. The only thing missing was Layne Staley, whose vices had forced him to become a recluse. The song Bargain Basement Howard Hughes, which appears on Jerry Cantrell's second solo effort Degradation Trip, is about Layne Staley. Such was Layne Staley's state of being that he wanted nothing to do with his own band. He didn't want to be seen what he had become, an addict on the downward spiral. To the band's credit, they never blamed their inactivity on Layne's condition, they always told interviewers that Layne's problems were a private matter that were nobody's business but his own. Sadly, on April 19, 2002, Layne Staley died as a result of a heroin-cocaine overdose [a "speedball"]. Jerry Cantrell dedicated Degradation Trip to his memory. Alice in Chains died with him. Or did it?

In 2005, Jerry Cantrell, Mike Inez and Sean Kinney regrouped as Alice in Chains with several different singers and played a benefit show for victims of the 2004 Christmas tsunami. The following year they toured with William DuVall as their new vocalist. William DuVall came from the band Comes with the Fall, which had played with Jerry Cantrell when he toured in support of Degradation Trip.

Fourteen years after their last studio release, Alice in Chains have put out a new album called Black Gives Way to Blue. I love this album. William DuVall does not try to ape Layne Staley. He does his own thing and harmonizes very well with Jerry Cantrell, as did Layne Staley. Black Gives Way to Blue has both the heavy elements of Dirt and the light-and-shade moments of Jar of Flies. It is a welcome addition to the Alice in Chains canon. The songs? My favorites so far are Acid Bubble, Last of My Kind, Your Decision, Check My Brain, and the title song. The title song is an homage to Layne Staley, and is a first for Alice in Chains - a song with a piano [played by none other than Elton John] as part of the arrangement. I read a recent review of a show Alice in Chains did in Seattle. As the first song of their encore, Jerry Cantrell came out alone, sat on a stool and started playing the song Black Gives Way to Blue. All through the song, the spotlight shone on an empty chair next to Jerry, a reminder of their missing friend.

Welcome back Alice - I hope it doesn't take another fourteen years to produce another record. This new one is a good one. I think somewhere Layne Staley must be smiling - at last.