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September 18, 1996

Guitar Man

J.J. CaleJ.J. Cale, Guitar Man (Virgin 1996) - Known as a primary exporter of the "Tulsa Sound" -- a blend of rock-n-roll, country, blues, and jazz -- J.J. Cale's unique home-grown approach has earned him a reputation as an American original and a stylistic innovator. And Guitar Man (his 12th release in a 24-year career) continues this tradition.

Cale's mellow musical persona is rooted in his native Tulsa, where he began playing in clubs at age 17. Cale headed to Los Angeles in 1964, and soon made a name for himself as a studio engineer, when not playing live gigs with a variety of musicians (including fellow Tulsa immigrants Leon Russell and Delaney & Bonnie). A restless sort, Cale moved to Nashville in 1970, then relocated to the Southern California desert (where Guitar Man was recorded) in 1980.

Guitar Man features a layered guitar sound that is essentially a solo effort by Cale (although long-time cohort, Christine Lakeland, makes an appearance on "Death in the Wilderness"). Says Cale, "This album is maybe a little more electronic sounding than some of my previous stuff. It's funny -- I was doing unplugged before it got popular, and now that it's popular, I've been getting more plugged in. I certainly didn't plan it this way."

Cale continues. "I'm always screwing around trying to get different types of guitar sounds, and I'm liable to try just about anything. I have several wah wah pedals, and generally I'll run the guitar through a few gizmos -- sometimes I'll try to give it that vacuum cleaner type of sound." In addition to his signature guitar sound, Cale has a wry, laconic wit. Says Cale, "Humor has always been part of my writing style."

While some songs are a bit light in substance, including "Old Blue," a ditty about Cale's now-deceased dog, and "Days Go By," a song about those "funny cigarettes" (and it seems odd for a fellow well into his 5th decade to sing about those "funny cigarettes"), several cuts are full-tilt acoustic rockers, including "It's Hard To Tell" and "Low Down."

Cale also shows his continued fascination for Delta country on "Miss Ol' St. Louie," a trend that stretches back as far as 1982's wonderful Grasshopper.

Cale has long marched to the beat of a different drummer (though no drummer appears on Guitar Man), and this has probably slowed his record sales. (Although other artists have scored big hits with Cale's material, including Eric Clapton's versions of "After Midnight" and "Cocaine".) But his musical talent always shines through. Don't ignore this original specimen.

Live from Mountain StageRock Live From Mountain Stage (Blueplate Music 1996) - Part of John Prine's "Oh Boy" label, Blueplate Music is largely devoted to promoting its excellent "Live From Mountain Stage" series. Rock Live (the 10th installment) should probably be termed "Country-rock Live," because it features a who's who of today's country-rock stars.

By way of introduction, Rock Live From Mountain Stage has been produced by West Virginia public radio since 1984. Broadcast nationally on more than 120 stations, the program features two hours of live performances by three or four artists each week, and has been graced by a broad range of contemporary performers. (No, it's not carried on any local radio stations.)

My favorite tracks are the first three - country slacker, Todd Snider's "All Right Guy", shuck-n-jive kings, Southern Culture on the Skids' "Eight Piece Box" and the inimicable John Prine's "Ain't Hurtin' Nobody."

Rock Live also captures the burgeoning new country-rock sound with such artists as Wilco ("I Must Be High"), the energetic Bonepony ("Poorboy Blues"), and the now-defunct Jayhawks ("Blue"). Also featured is a fine version of "I Believe" by Blessid Union of Souls, together with a laid-back (read "too mellow") version of "Send Me On My Way" by Rusted Root. (Which begs the question -- where did Twister's stunning single, "Virtual Reality," come from?)

Blueplate is doing a great job of making this music available to the general public. Compilations can be a hard sell, but Rock Live blends seamlessly. Country-rock fans will enjoy this release.

ScorpionsScorpions, Pure Instinct (Atlantic 1996) - Almost 30 years into their career, Germany's pioneering Scorpions have sold over 20 million albums worldwide, and have a fistful of hit singles to their credit. Their 13th studio album, Pure Instinct, continues the band's potent mixture of pop melodies and skull-crushing riffs.

Formed in 1968, the Scorpions released their first album, Lonesome Crow, in 1972. Other releases include Animal Magnetism (1980), Blackout (1982), and Love At First Sting (1984). The Scorpions have long been known for their worldwide touring, which has taken them throughout Europe, North America, and South America.

The band's current lineup features Klaus Meine on vocals, Rudolf Schenker (brother of Michael Schenker of UFO) on guitar and vocals, Matthias Jabs on guitars, and Ralph Rieckermann on bass. For Pure Instinct, the band also recruited Curt Cress and Pitti Hecht on drums and percussion, and Luke Herzog and Koen Van Bael on keyboards.

According to Klaus Meine, "the first songs for Pure Instinct were written in the autumn of 1994, right after the end of our 'Face the Heat' world tour. That was a very creative phase. In the spring of 1995, we met and decided not to pack our bags and fly off to some studio halfway round the world, but to stay at home and work in a relaxed way in our own studio in order to make a completely authentic album."

Meine continues: "We worked on two or three songs per day, playing various arrangements, and as soon as we felt 'that's it,' we went into the studio." Additional tracks were recorded at Holland's renowned Wisseloord Studios.

The years of touring and playing together have polished the Scorpions' sound, and Pure Instinct is a skilled studio release. From rock anthems like "Time Will Call Your Name" to sweet ballads like "Does Anyone Know?", the band displays its skilled chops.

I've never really paid much attention to the Scorpions, but Pure Instinct caught my ear as the band has shades of the big rock sound that Queen developed. The Scorpions headlined recently at Selland Arena with Alice Cooper as warmup. We liked the show very well, especially Alice, who acquitted himself well on such gems as "School's Out" and "Only Women Bleed."

The Scorpions are for real; rock fans should find Pure Instinct.

-- Randy Krbechek

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