Some recent reviews and all these below are worth a listen…but do approach with caution the new John Wetton album which is very disappointing and avoid the Worst Album of the Year – Sanchez. Truly woeful melodic hard rock, listening to an electric drill would be more enjoyable and tuneful…

CHRIS DIFFORD ‘Cashmere If You Can’  ****1/2

Before you even get to the music on this latest solo album from Squeeze’s Chris Difford you can but marvel at the album artwork. Based on the Penguin books logo the song titles are shown on spines of books on a bookshelf and the inlay sleeve replicates the old advice found on vinyl about ‘care for of your record.’ One of the most impressive album covers I’ve seen for a long time. Even better the music is simply wonderful.

Chris Difford is in reflective mode on this album, harking back to his starting out in music on ‘1975’ and looking forward to making sure he avoids an old folk’s home in ‘Cotton Tops’. His lyrics really are spot on and tell short stories that stick in your mind. ‘Like I Did’ is a sure fire hit single if mainstream radio could be bothered. A wonderful pop tune, looking at how a dad can’t really tell his kids off because they are only doing what he did back in the day. How true that sentiment is…

‘Goldfish’ is a mellow song and features a lovely duet between Chris Difford and Kathryn Williams. ‘Sidney Street’ pays homage to his dad and others who fought in a war. ‘Passion Killer’ is a bit of fun as parents try and snatch some hanky panky whilst avoiding their kids.

A fine collection of beautifully crafted tunes – a lesson in how to create long lasting and enjoyable pop tunes. Along with Ray Davies a national treasure when it comes to telling life’s stories through music.

SUZI QUATRO ‘In The Spotlight’ Cherry Red (2011) ***1/2

Suzi Quatro’s first new album since 2006’s ‘Back To The Drive’ and it sees Mike Chapman back producing the whole album (as well as writing four songs on the album). Chapman was her producer in the 70’s when she had her biggest success.

As you’d expect with Mike Chapman back at the helm the music has a 70’s classic rock feel. The Goldfrapp cover ‘Strict Machine’ has a classic Suzi Quatro backbeat and the song bears an uncanny resemblance to ‘Can The Can’. You can compare for yourself as a snippet of ‘Can The Can’ features towards the end of the song. Another modern cover is ‘Breakin’ Dishes’, a hit for Rhianna. The original was awful but this version is saved by Suzi Quatro’s vocals.

Not so keen on the cod reggae of ‘Hurt With You’ and it feels out of place with the rest of the album. Luckily a rocker like ‘Hot Kiss’ more than makes up for this song. ‘Turn Into You’ is an instant hit on the ears and her tribute to Elvis, ‘Singing With Angels’ rounds the album off in style.

She may be old enough to qualify for a free bus pass but Suzi Quatro still knows how to rock. Good choice of a couple of recent chart hit covers that she makes her own. Her fans will love this album that’s for sure.

INFINITY ‘Infinity’ MelodicRock Records (2011) ****

This album was recorded back in 1986/87 and finally gets a release some 25 years later. Damn shame it never got a full release back in 1087 as the musical scene then would have lapped this album up. Also for once it is a lost melodic rock gem and not like a lot of other so called melodic rock ‘lost gems’, many of which should have stayed lost!

The band was formed around Mitch Malloy (before his successful solo career kicked off a couple of years later) and ex-Rainbow keyboards player David Rosenthall (later to be part of Red Dawn). Also on guitar a very young Reb Beach of Winger/Whitesnake fame.

The music is very keyboard heavy as you’d expect with David Rosenthall being involved and Mitch Malloy shows even at this early stage in his career what a voice he has. He sounds a bit like Max Bacon (GTR) on ‘She’s On Fire’.

Lots of keyboards to enjoy, as Rosenthall lays down some nifty synth and Hammond solos. Check out ‘Christine’ and ‘Secrets’. ‘Promise’ is a lovely ballad that back in the 80’s would have been a US radio hit I am sure and again Mitch Malloy puts in a fine vocal performance. ‘Over You’ wouldn’t sound out of place on a Toto album from the same period.

Finally it gets a release, a real gem for fans of Mitch Malloy and 80’s AOR/melodic rock.

JAMIE ALLEN ‘The Storyteller’ **** 

Jamie Allen is a Poison tribute frontman and he does look like Brett Michaels in the promo photos but the music on here owes more to classic Bon Jovi. This is doubtless in part due to the album’s producer, one Johnny Lima, who has released a string of fine albums under his own name that blow anything Bon Jovi have done since the early 90’s out of the water.

This is a damn fine album be it the good time 80’s influenced melodic rocker ‘She Gets Around’, the more reflective acoustic based ‘Ghosts Of My Hometown’ or the album’s heavier end represented by ‘Smoke & Mirrors’ (Allen has a real Bon Jovi feel to his vocals on this one). Lyrically the songs do tell stories as the album title suggests, be it tales of lost love, looking back to better days or simply reflections on life in general.

Perfect for lapsed Bon Jovi fans like myself and Johnny Lima fans. Jamie Allen should be justly proud of this fine collection of songs, which will hopefully get the attention they deserve.

SIMON JAMES WHITE ‘Moments Of Magnitude’ ****

Simon James White returns with a new album, his first since 2008’s ‘A State Of Delirium’. In between times he’s been busy touring, working with other musicians and working on this new album. He is hard to categorise dipping his musical toes into classic rock, indie guitar pop and more aggressive vocals/music in the Pixies mode.

Songs like the instant ‘The Hero & The Tragedy’ and ‘Constant Motion’ are songs that would do well with some airplay. Hip enough for the younger listeners but with enough subtle tips to classic/indie rock to keep older listeners onboard. ‘Is This’ features a damn fine chorus, whilst ‘We Pretend’ deftly mixes nifty guitar with another string chorus. Simon James White’s vocals can take a little while to gel with as he has a higher pitch than many, not quite Justin Hawkins of the Darkness, more latter day Jon Anderson.

Another good album from an artist who deserves a wider audience. Plenty here to enjoy for rock and indie music lovers.

ROB MORATTI ‘Victory’ Escape Music (2011) **** 

Vocalist Rob Moratti made his name firstly in Final Frontier – think highly catchy Journey style AOR with high pitched vocals – and then Saga, who he recorded one album with, ‘The Human Condition’ in 2009. Since the return of original vocalist Michael Sadler to Saga Rob Moratti has been working on this rather good solo album. There are some name guests such as Reb Beach (guitars), Tony Franklin (bass) and Saga’s durummer Brian Doerner.

One thing that hits you about the album is that it sounds like a band, as you have for the most part the same musicians throughout. Reb Beach really lets fly with some great solos and even adds a little latter day Whitesnake to ‘Life Time’. Then there is the 80’s AOR-tastic ‘Life On The Line’ with a massive synth hook and ‘Standing On Top Of The World’ is another radio friendly tune. ‘Take It All Back’ is a strong ballad, whilst fans from his Saga days have ‘On And On’, the only song to have any real prog feel to it.

An album that has a good balance of melodic hard rock, ballads and a touch of Saga approved prog. Don’t expect Final Frontier or Saga but do expect an album of quality songs and Rob Moratti has launched his solo career in style.

FULLFORCE ‘One’ SPV (2011) ****

A new melodic/power metal band but with some familiar names in the line-up, namely vocalist Mike Andersson (Cloudscape), guitarists Stefan Elmgren (ex-Hammerfall) and CJ Grimmark, Hammerfall drummer Anders Johansson and bass player Tommy Larsson.

Their sound is not like Hammerfall, who are much like Marmite in that you either love or loathe that band. Instead Fullforce play catchy, melodic metal that stands up to repeated listens. The real stand out for me is ‘Father Spirit’, a brooding number that reminded me of the mighty Kamelot and Evergrey. ‘Oblivion’ is another good one, starting with a bit of tabla before picking up a few tasty riffs and a big, melodic chorus. The backing does remind you of Whitesnake at times.

‘Bleed’ and ‘Mythomaniac’ (great title) see the band adopt a more heavier sound but never losing sight of a good, catchy melody. Vocalist Mike Andersson really has a blast on this album, having a nice melodic touch when needed and some metal steel for the heavier songs. There are keyboard passages on the album, adding touches of musical variety as and when required, but I am not sure who played these.

Fullforce are certainly streets ahead of many bands in this genre, helped no doubt by the experienced musicians in the line-up. An accomplished debut and here’s hoping Fullforce remain a force for years to come…

SARAH JAROSZ ‘Follow Me Down’ Sugar Hill Records (2011) **** 

This is Sarah Jarosz’s second album, released as she turns twenty yet the music she records has its roots many years in the past. Like the excellent recent Tommy Shaw (Styx) album this is another one with a strong bluegrass and country feel. Sheesh must be my age but I am really enjoying this style of music of late. Like the aforementioend Tommy Shaw album, this one has plenty of top draw guests including Bela Fleck (the Jeff Beck of the banjo), Shawn Colvin and Vince Gill.

Jarosz has a lovely, soothing voice and also plays guitar, banjo, piano and mandolin. This talented at twenty imagine what she will sound like in another five, ten years or more. ‘Come Around’ is one for all, regardless of whether you have listened to/enjoy country music. It features a simple chorus that is just so damn catchy. The two instrumentals on here easily hold their own against the vocal tracks and are not just here to make up the numbers. ‘Annabelle Lee’ is one of those wonderful songs with a tale to tell, helped of course by the fact it is based on an Edgar Allen Poe poem.

Special mention to two covers. Bob Dylan’s ‘Ring Them Bells’ you’d assume and be right in thinking would work well given a more traditional air. Vince Gill adds harmonies on this song. However, Radiohead done with mandolin, violin and banjo? Bizarre as it may sound it works, in this case it is ‘The Tourist’ and what a version. She damn near makes the song her own! A stroke of genius and in many ways a gamble to cover this.

Sit up, take note of Sarah Jarosz as America already has and with an album this strong it is easy to see her charming her way into the UK and beyond.

HANSON ‘Shout It Out’ (2011) ****

Hanson for many people will be the trio of brothers (Isaac, Taylor and Zav) who back in 1996 had a massive hit with ‘MMMbop’. Since then they have continued to tour and record although never quite reaching the massive hit status of ‘MMMbop’. You could also argue they paved the way for another brothers band the Jonas Brothers, who are massive in the US thanks to exposure on the Disney channel, although Hanson are much more palatable on the ears.

This, their latest album is a pop rock treat, although it was released last summer in the US and only seems to be getting a UK release now. The band leans heavily on the piano, drums and big horn section for this album, a rocked up Chicago! ‘Waiting For Time’ opedn the album with a catchy piano riff before the song bursts into life with guitar and a damn fine chorus. Although ‘Thinkin’ ‘Bout Somethin’ was the lead single, ‘Carry You There’ complete with some gorgeous gospel/soul harmonies and ‘Voice In The Chorus’ could also easily grace daytime airplay. The band do ballads as you’d expect, with the album’s closing track, the plaintive ‘Me Myself And I’ showing how a teeny band can grow up into a decent and respected pop rock/AOR outfit.

Leave your preconceptions at the door and enjoy this upbeat album full of classy pop rock, soul and a sprinkling of blues.

KANSAS ‘Vinyl Confessions’/’Drastic Measures’ Rock Candy (2011)  

Two interesting Kansas re-issues in that they are not always the most liked amongst some fans, mainly due to the fact that original vocalist Steve Walsh had left the band. Also these two albums have a lot less prog rock elements on them, particulary by the time of ‘Drastic Measures’, one of the band’s most commerical sounding albums. ‘Vinyl Confessions’ ***1/2 has much of the classic Kansas prog rock sound and ‘Drastic Measures’ **** is one of their most commercial/AOR albums.

Turning to ‘Vinyl Confessions’ this was the first album without Steve Walsh, who was replaced by John Elefante (whose brother Dino co-wrote four songs on the album with John). The band’s sound bar the vocals, kept the classic 70’s sound but with a more melodic rock sound creeping in, none more so than the excellent opener ‘Play The Game Tonight’. For those fans after a longer musical workout that the band do so well ‘Cross Fire’ nicely fits the bill. There are a couple of not so good songs including ‘Diamonds And Pearls’ – it’s poppy air doesn’t sit well with the rest of the album.

By 1983’s ‘Drastic Measures’ vioilinist/vocalist Robbie Steinhardt had also left the band and with him went much of the band’s distinct prog rock sound. Having said that this album has some top draw melodic rockers in ‘Fight Fire With Fire’, ‘Everybody’s My Friend’ (the ‘Hello, hello’ opening was used by Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman on his rock shows) and ‘Mainstream’.

‘Going Through The Motions’ and ‘Incident On A Bridge’ tipped their hat to the band’s prog/pomp roots though. By now it was very much the Elefante brothers becoming established in the band as between them they wrote six of the albums nine songs. The lyrical content on both albums was more overtly Christian, as not only were the Elefante brothers commited Christians but so was the other main songwriter Kerry Livgren and bassist Dave Hope.

The band called it a day after this album with both Hope and Livgren forming A.D. (their albums are worth tracking down) and the Elefante brothers would form Mastedon, who released two ‘must have’ albums in the late 80’s. That band then disappeared until a comeback album on Frontiers released last year. As for Kansas they returned in 1986 with the excellent ‘Power’ album (after fans criticising the Elefante albusm for being too commercial this album is prime time melodic rock!) and Steve Walsh back on vocals.

Both albums are worth having and being Rock Candy not only are they remastered but have lengthy sleeve notes as well. No bonus tracks though. Now can we have ‘Power’ and ‘In The Spirit Of Things’ re-issued next please?

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