Porky’s Groove Machine – Sticklers For Specificity

Sticklers For Specificity, released in February of 2021, is the latest extended play from Porky’s Groove Machine, a septet based in Appleton, Wisconsin. The cover artwork is adorned with a visual homage to Rene Magritte’s 1929 surrealist painting “The Treachery of Images”—with an illustrated hog in place of the famous tobacco pipe—immediately signaling the irreverent, Dada-esque approach to dance music that has become a trademark of this group.

More experimental than previous releases, and a stylistic departure from the primarily Afrobeat-influenced sound of their early work, Sticklers For Specificity was recorded at the famed Hideaway Studios in Northeast Minneapolis, with production handled by Jason McGlone. The EP begins with the title song, a humorous duet that lyrically riffs on conversational pedantry, backed by horns and a tight rhythm section.

The second track, “Spice Girls”, opens with a classic funk vamp, hearkening back to the late 60s/early 70s work of James Brown, before shifting into a melodic ode to its subject—which is not, as one might expect, the turn-of-the-millennium British girl group, but rather actual spices, as in culinary seasoning. The middle-eight features a sultry saxophone solo, before segueing into a retro-rap interlude underpinned by an old-school Roland beat machine, then picking up the chorus and closing out the song with a capella coda.

“Traffic Jam” features a comedic spoken-word introduction with “chipmunk-ed” vocals, which recalls the wackier moments of vintage Parliament-Funkadelic albums, while “Swamp Ass Shimmy” narrates an unpleasant journey through bayou country. The final song (“S.A.D.”) is an upbeat, disco-inspired dance tune about seasonal affective disorder, creating an unexpected juxtaposition between the feel-good rhythm and the lyrics.

There is no shortage of musical ideas on this five-track EP, and with Sticklers For Specificity it would seem that Porky’s Groove Machine has achieved a decidedly rare feat: thoughtful party music.

– K. McKee

Roll The Dice, released in 2017, is the third album by Héctor Anchondo, a blues singer/guitarist from Omaha, Nebraska, who also happens to be the winner of the 2020 International Blues Challenge for solo/duo performance. In contrast to 2014’s Young Guns, Anchondo’s previous album from 2014, Roll The Dice has a bigger sound and fuller arrangements, with a result that is more ambitious—and perhaps more accessible—than its predecessor.

The album opens with “Dig You Baby”, a brassy, rollicking duet with a female guest vocalist, followed by “Masquerade”, a vintage-sounding rock & roll tune. The title track (“Roll the Dice”) is more soulful and pop-inclined, while “Face it Down” is a hard-driving roadhouse boogie, a la ZZ Top.

Included among the originals is a seven-minute cover of the pre-Buckingham/Nicks-era Fleetwood Mac composition “Black Magic Woman”. Anchondo’s version features an extended introduction, with a flurry of sweep-picked guitar notes that build to a crescendo, before breaking into a four-to-the-floor bass drum rhythm. For a song that has produced so many iconic recordings—especially Santana’s 1970 version from Abraxas—the Héctor Anchondo Band provides a fresh take on a classic song.

The overall production of Roll The Dice is top-notch, and avoids the creeping sonic sterility that would otherwise leave the album sounding dated to the current era of digital recording technology. As for the musicianship, Anchondo can seriously shred, effortlessly switching from virtuosic Van Halen-esque arpeggios to sparse, crying blue-note leads. Moreover, though guitar may be his primary instrument, the guy can definitely sing, most notably on the album’s penultimate track “On Your Mic, Get Set, Sing”, where Anchondo’s vocals approach a Jeff Buckley-level of honeyed melodiousness. The harmonica playing also deserves a special mention, especially for the intricate harp-work on the first couple of tracks.

With Roll The Dice, Héctor Anchondo may not be trying to reinvent the wheel when it comes to classic guitar-driven rock and roll, but he is clearly willing to take chances with songwriting and musical arrangements. While remaining firmly rooted in blues-rock territory, the album covers a lot of ground, both stylistically—from the Doors-y minor key jam of “That’s How It All Goes” to an almost 1980’s New Wave sound in “Jump in the Water” —and thematically, featuring lyrically humorous songs as well as heavier material throughout the ten tracks.

The combination of musical variety and skilled execution on Roll The Dice provides a satisfying experience that stands up to repeat listening.

K. McKee

Minneapolis-based singer/songwriter Sarah Morris burst back into our hearts with her first full album since 2017. Twangy and romantic, “All Mine” is a classic americana album combining excellent lyric writing with tight instrumentation.

Even though it was released pre-COVID, (Feb 2020) the melancholy sentiments of ache and longing are prominent throughout the album. Her powerful songwriting makes for a relatable piece of work that touches on the difficulties of life, but also the beauty within the struggle.

The instrumentation is mostly acoustic guitar-driven, with added elements of romantic violin, bluesy stand-up bass lines, and some rockin’ electric guitar solos. Sarah’s whimsical soprano lead vocals display exceptional range and control.

The genre, while americana at its core, brings in strong elements of blues, country, and even dips its toe in the doo-wop style of the 60’s in the crooning lullaby, ‘There, There’. The subtle country twang stands strong throughout most of the songs, giving that American romance vibe.

‘Things That You Can’t Tell By Looking At A Picture’ is an outlier when it comes to genre. This track is almost ambient (save the melancholy vocals), and gives the feeling of a motion-picture score. It’s weirder, spookier, and very much more outside-the-box.

The last two tracks, (‘Mendocino’, ‘I’m A Wreck’) are more heavy blues, with electric guitar solos and staccato strumming. The final track should be mentioned as it incorporates 70’s wailing keys and wraps up the record perfectly with a strong blues finish and a jammy fade-out.

The record feels like a glimpse into the diary of a young woman from the Midwest, adding nostalgia to visuals such as “the Minnesota sky, rows of corn in late July” (‘How I Want To Love You’). It’s the perfect album for watching the leaves fall, and remembering what once was.

– Joslyn Danielson

Even with such a difficult year for the music industry, artists such as Tommy Bentz clearly haven’t been held down by the pandemic. In his newest album, ‘1000 Reasons’ (May 2021), Tommy brings together a group of extremely talented musicians and spans across genres to bring us this bluesy, jazzy, heavy-hitting record of 2021.

The group has clearly spent a lot of time playing together, and it shows. Tight instrumentals, complex time-signature changes, and well executed solos. One of the more impressive examples of this is in the second track on the album, ‘Humble’. The band throws the spotlight back and forth between them, taking turns ripping out some impressive lead melodies. Dirty blues guitar, to a groovy bass line, into the best drum solo of the album…triplets, rolls, and all that jazz.

Another stand-out track is the last song on the album. The twang comes in strong off the bat, right into a head-bobbing groove. Each break between phrases showcases a different instrument’s riff. The track is totally instrumental and all about the band. Tommy’s lead guitar takes the place of lead vocals, carrying the melody.

Tommy really shines in his lead guitar playing. With whammy bar action, and dirty slides, He clearly draws influence from the 60’s-70’s rock era of Hendrix, Van Morrison, and Clapton. He incorporates a subtle twang in both his vocals and guitar, creating head-bobbing jams with just the right amount of funk.

It’s obvious that the Tommy Bentz Band puts on a killer live show, and the Twin Cities will be eagerly awaiting the time when we can see ‘1000 Reasons’ live. In the meantime keep an eye out for upcoming gigs, and get down and dirty in your living room to this new, killer record.

Joslyn Danielson

Joyann Parker, Out of the Dark

(Released Feb. 2021)Joyann Parker and her band have followed up their debut album, Hard to Love (released in 2018) with Out of the Dark, and it’s a work that surpasses its predecessor in almost every way.

Now, don’t get me wrong: Hard to Love remains a solid record—the energy, the songwriting, the musicianship was all there. But something about Out of the Dark just feels more ambitious, everything from the arrangements to the variety of genres that the band explores, along with the sense that the band is pushing itself in new creative directions. There’s no sign of a sophomore slump here.

For those unfamiliar with the Joyann Parker Band, the group consists of frontwoman Parker (lead vocals, guitar, piano), Mark Lamoine (guitar), Brad Schaeffer (bass), and Bill Golden (drums). On this record, they are supplemented by a bevy of horns, strings, keyboards, and backup singers.

The production was helmed by industry veteran Kevin Bowe, whose songwriting and production credits run the gamut from Etta James to the Replacements. Overall, the drums have a solid 1960s vibe, the guitars are crisp without sounding thin, and when Joyann belts it out, you can really hear the vintage saturation on the vocals. And, ultimately, there’s really no getting around Joyann’s voice: it’s surely the centerpiece of the band’s signature sound, which is why it’s great to clearly hear all of the fine-grained dynamics that can get lost when the same song is performed in a live setting (it’s not that studio recordings are necessarily “better” than a live performance, they just have their own unique advantages).

Out of the Dark starts with “Gone So Long”, a slide-guitar slow-burner—which serves as a good segue from their previous record—before jumping into the gospel-flavored funk of “Carry On”, complete with wah-wah guitar and electric clavichord. “Predator”, one of the album’s standout pieces, features a sinuous salsa rhythm to accompany its lyrical subject, and “Come On Baby (Take Me Dancing)” sounds so classic that you’d swear it was a Sam Cooke song.

And that’s really the greatest strength of the band. They—or more specifically, songwriting duo Parker and Lamoine—have the remarkable ability to write original material that sounds totally familiar, as if it came from an altogether different era, a time when songwriting was held to a different standard. Every chord change is perfect, and the lyrics brim with wit throughout the eleven tracks.

Part of the charm of the Joyann Parker Band is indeed their retro feel, the sense that you could walk into a juke-joint in the middle of the 20th Century and see a band knocking out tunes in a similar style. But Parker & Co. are not mere conservators of the past. Rather, they are calling back to those older musical styles, while at the same time creating a new energy, one that is both vibrant and fun, and which is just as apparent on the record as it is during a live performance.

K. C. McKee