Michael Ward with Dogs and Fishes – Monkey Stew
J.J. Cale once said that he truly got into songwriting the moment he figured out that he wasn’t going to be able to pay the bills on his guitar playing alone. I’m not certain that Michael Ward has similar mercantile desires. His compositions are studied, complex, and feature a fair deal of musical sophistication. But, his work does remind me of Cale’s, a man whose music, even when dealing with debauched subject matter, seemed to come from a place of wisdom.
Similarly, Mr Ward and his all-star band approach Monkey Stew as enlightened men who’ve had to travel a long way to obtain their knowledge. They are preoccupied with the state of the world and with what their children are bound to inherit. They are also preoccupied with cramming as much musical finesse into this short composition as it will stand.
The worldly blues-jazz of the group is accompanied by Babatunde Lea of the Bayaka forest tribe of the Republic of Congo. The result is world-music with a solid groove and an environmental message.
Leona – Something
Has any songwriter equipped with a guitar never, at some point during their burgeoning career, stopped to think “Hey, I should really try to start a band that sounds like the Beatles… or something like that”? No, it’s a prerequisite wanting to sound like the world’s biggest band. Or, at least like something belonging to the same era.
It was a time when melodies whispered in pretty, well-structured harmonies were what built careers. Frankly, it feels odd that the same principle fails to apply to the mainstream now. Still, considering just how popular the Fab Four remain, the free music market is still on the lookout for this kind of music.
The thing about this kind of retro-rock act is that they’re completely disarming when they’re honest about their love of the 60s and when the melodies truly click. This is the case for Leona on Something. Much more than a tribute act, the group has found great hooks, has studied up on their harmonies and possesses the kind of effervescence that could make even the coldest hearts melt.