Saturday , May 25 2024

Music Reviews: The Beat Farmers, James Holvay, Will Porter, and Mary Karlzen

The Beat FarmersTales of the New West (Deluxe Edition). It’s probably safe to say that this is the only album in existence to include covers of both the Velvet Underground’s “There She Goes Again” and “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” the old country folk song. But then there aren’t many groups whose apparent influences are as diverse as the Beat Farmers’. 

Listening to this release—which pairs the band’s 1985 country-tinged rock debut with a remastered version of a previously issued contemporaneous concert—you might be reminded of artists as varied as Country Joe McDonald, Lou Reed, Commander Cody, the Fugs, the Shadows, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Jimmy Dean. A reviewer once memorably described the Beat Farmers’ music as being “like Bo Diddley, CCR [Creedence Clearwater], Joe South, and the Yardbirds, ham fisted into a food processor, stuffed into a shotgun shell, and blasted into a beer keg at three in the morning.”

The San Diego–based group (which broke up in 1995) was as impressive, both instrumentally and vocally, as it was versatile, and the lion’s share of this set is a knockout. In addition to a propulsive cover of the aforementioned Velvet Underground number, the debut includes versions of Bruce Springsteen’s “Reason to Believe” and John Stewart’s “Never Goin’ Back” as well as a variety of excellent originals, among them the popular novelty, “Happy Boy.” The 21-track bonus disc, which first appeared in 2003 as Live at the Spring Valley Inn, 1983, is a treat as well. In addition to high-energy renditions of half of the songs on the studio set, it draws on a motley menu of originals as well as covers ranging from Johnny Cash’s “Big River” and “I Still Miss Someone” to Willie Dixon’s “You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover” and “Tryin’ to Get to You,” which you may know from Elvis Presley’s versions.

James HolvaySweet Soul SongIn the late 1960s in Chicago, singer, songwriter, and guitarist James Holvay co-founded a soul band called The Mob that lasted until 1980. He also wrote songs for such artists as Dee Clark, Bryan Hyland, and the Buckinghams, who scored hits with four Holvay numbers, including 1967’s chart-topping “Kind of a Drag.” In the decades after that, he reportedly did something related to sales, but what he should have been doing is making records like this terrific EP, which after all these years is the first album to bear his name. 

If vintage Chicago soul has a place in your heart, you need these tracks. Their most obvious influence is Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions (Holvay calls Mayfield “the guy that I always idolized”), but you can also sense an affection for Major Lance and such Vee-Jay artists as Gene Chandler. (Holvay references all of these acts on the title track, a love letter to Windy City soul, circa 1963.)  

Good luck trying to pick a favorite among these five horns-spiced, beautifully arranged, and soulfully delivered tracks, all of which Holvay wrote (though The Mob’s Gary Beisbier gets cowriting credits on one number). Every one is on par with the classics that influenced them.

Will PorterTick Tock Tick. When this newly reissued second album from San Francisco­–based singer and songwriter Will Porter first appeared in 2015, few Americans heard it, because it suffered from extremely limited U.S. distribution. Some critics got copies, though, and they raved. 

No wonder: Porter, who has worked as musical director for Mary Wells, Billy Preston, and Percy Sledge, is a superb soul singer, reminiscent of Bill Withers, Bobby Bland, and Lou Rawls at their best. And this 11-track album—which the esteemed New Orleans musician and band leader Wardell Quezergue produced shortly before his death—is a gem. In addition to Porter’s arresting vocals, it offers moody orchestration by the Louisiana Philharmonic Strings, a star-studded guest list, and arrangements that bear comparison to those on masterpieces like Ray Charles’s “Georgia” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You.”

Some of the material qualifies as funk, including the title track and “When the Battle Is Over,” both by and featuring the late Dr. John, but Porter’s earthy baritone shines brightest on the ballads that predominate. Among them: the magnificent “This California Sun” and “Why Do We Get Blue,” two of five self-penned numbers here; Etta Jones’s “Don’t Go to Strangers”; and a definitive cover of Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love,” a duet with the great Bettye LaVette. These are performances that can lift you up—or tug at your heartstrings.

Mary KarlzenShineMary Karlzen has been kicking around the music business for a long time—her first album appeared nearly 30 years ago—but she hasn’t exactly been prolific: this pop/rock release is only her sixth album since her eponymous 1992 debut; it’s also her first since The Wanderlust Diaries, which came out 14 years ago.

You may wish the catalog were fatter when you hear Shine, which reunites her with many of the folks who contributed to Wanderlust Diaries, including the E Street Band’s Garry Tallent, ex-Wilco drummer Ken Coomer, and producer Jansen Press. Among others lending a hand: Ben Peeler, formerly of the Mavericks; Kenny Aronoff, who is probably best known as John Mellencamp’s drummer from 1980 to 1996; and Lisset Diaz, the talented vocalist from Sweet Lizzy Project.

The musicianship is first rate and so are Karlzen’s vocals, which are a bit reminiscent of Juliana Hatfield but more nuanced. The songs—all by the singer—feature great hooks, a generous dose of jingle-jangle guitar, and lyrics drawn straight from the artist’s life. The lilting “One Step Away from Home,” for example, is about Karlzen’s efforts to balance her dual lives as a musician and mother, while “Say You’ll Never Go Away Again” and “I’ll Be There” both concern her children. 

Then there’s the title cut, an effusive ballad about saying goodbye to youthful dreams and finding peace in the life that you have. Karlzen does seem to have found a measure of contentment but this song notwithstanding, one suspects she may still harbor a few dreams for her music. Given the excellence of Shine, they might just come true.

About Jeff Burger

Jeff Burger’s website,, contains half a century's worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.

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