Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Michael Des Barres - The Key To The Universe - Brilliant Rock 'N' Roll Is Alive And Well

Michael Des Barres
The Key To The Universe
FOD Records
April 2015

Michael Des Barres' The Key To The Universe is one of those increasingly rare records that makes you remember why we love rock 'n' roll - in fact, it forces you to remember why we love rock 'n' roll. Rock 'n' roll that reminds you that the best rock 'n' roll resides both in the head, and below the waist. This record is a blast.

Continuing his musical resurgence that began in 2011 with the excellent Carnaby Street album, and followed by 2013's incendiary Hot n Sticky Live set, Michael Des Barres has unleashed an album that is the best of his long and storied career. Written and recorded over five weeks in the stately Forum Music Village studio in Rome, the record marries Des Barres' velvety shards of broken glass vocals with a band that is absolutely smoldering on the verge of explosion, and a producer (Bob Rose) who has managed to keep it raw, but with a simple beauty that dazzles. The intensity is palpable - this foursome provides an incredible amount of ear candy that well decorates the 'heart on the sleeve' stories that are being told. The music makes you feel like you're living the song, as all great rock should. This is where the story should be at this point - this is where rock is meant to go.

This is Michael Des Barres' album - he's always been a compelling storyteller, even back to his formative days fronting the legendary Silverhead, but now he's finally found his inner Bob Dylan - every word on this album speaks the truth, and I can't remember when... No, I don't even know if I've ever said this - when I hear this album, I hear Him (and him). Maybe never so directly as when I first heard George Harrison's All Things Must Pass. This is a direct translation from the singer to the song to the listener - that's what it's all supposed to be about. The message is love and compassion, are you listening? And, Des Barres' voice has aged well, and he sounds like he should at this point in time. Which is brilliant - his phrasing and note choices are sublime.

Des Barres has reunited with former bandmate Nigel Harrison (from the aforementioned Silverhead), who is best known as the bassist for New York scene-makers Blondie, and his playing and writing bring a certain 'je ne sais quoi' that results in hit records. Again and again, his voice leading bass lines take the songs right where you want them to go - whether it's a beautiful descent or an energetic step up, I'm reminded of what drove so many Motown music fans to dance. He comes on sounding like the band's default musical director, though he's got loads of competition for attention.

Drummer Clive Deamer is a genuine risk taker - he doesn't play like a session guy, he plays like he's in for a penny, in for a pound. It's easy to see why he's been the touring drummer for Radiohead, Portishead, recorded with Jeff Beck, and served eight seasons with Robert Plant's The Strange Sensation band. He's genuinely exciting, and his impeccable sense of time is equally matched to his abilities to hit like a heavyweight, and still drive the band through some very sophisticated twists and turns. Then there's Dani Robinson.

Guitarist Dani Robinson is this band's secret weapon - he's best known as a Jimi Hendrix aficionado, having recently done time on the Experience Hendrix tours, and as guitarist for Billy Cox's Band Of Gypsys Experience, but here he sounds more like he's playing Mick Ronson to his boss's Bowie. He orchestrates Des Barres melodies again and again with solos and fills that in one turn surprise you, then he delivers the only notes that could be played (a gift that evades so many other guitarists) in a given situation. He manages to play spectacularly without ever appearing to be show-offish. He just plays perfect 'for the song' rock 'n' roll.

The album starts off with two cover tunes, but they are both tunes that Mr. Des Barres and band highjack straight to rock 'n' roll heaven. Starting off with Linda Perry's 'Can't Get You Off My Mind', Des Barres takes this great set of lyrics to the stratosphere - this sounds like what I would have wished the Rolling Stones to have sounded like in 2015, and though you'd never guess that these weren't his words, he owns them quite righteously. Nigel Harrison immediately makes his presence known with fearless and unflinching bass guitar.

Then it's on to Peter Wolf's 'Roomful Of Angels', and this is really as good as rock 'n' roll gets - much in the same way Keith Richards has on occasion come to own a cover song from his past, Des Barres ups the bet and transcends even what Peter Wolf did with his brilliant original - when you hear the man sing this chorus, you are instantly infused and transformed by rock. Dani Robinson plays some heroic lead guitar - ripping, melodic, and filled with a type of panache seldom heard since Mick Ronson's passing.

What comes next is as close to politics as the album gets, and it's the politics of love and intensity. Michael makes his soul's proclamation with 'I Want Love To Punch Me In The Face'. This is raw, energetic, and straight ahead rock 'n' roll of the best kind. This is where Rod Stewart wishes he'd have ended up. Rock can stay sexy as long as it wants, it doesn't have to get old, and this is as compelling as anything I've heard in ages. This is the most essential listening I have as yet heard in 2015, and it's absolutely essential to the career of Michael Des Barres. Maybe he's just working with the axiom that you never let the third act be boring, maybe he's just very much living in the moment. As much as I have always loved Silverhead's 16 And Savaged, an album which has stuck to me for many decades, I have to say this is a better record.

'Maybe Means Nothing' sounds like an homage to Mott The Hoople when they were at their very best. A cheeky rocker that's looking for a little truth, and seeking to cut through the minutiae and straight to the chase. Dani Robinson's solo is a classic bit of overly bent madness, and it's perfect - it literally jumps off the track and grabs you by the throat.

The Key To The Universe is a very cinematic album - the songs sound like soundtracks to the stories they contain, and 'Burning In Water, Drowning In Flames' is a beautiful example. The song's sultry tone is driven nicely by drummer Deamer, who's giving chase, but the band is taking its sweet time, playing behind his insistent beat and unworried of being caught. Robinson is again brilliant as one minute he sweeps up chords that come up to pitch as he raises his whammy bar, plays another blinder of a solo, and provides the storyteller's voice with just what it needs in support, and oh what a voice. Des Barres is at the top of his game, and he delivers this perfectly. Another big, corpulent, syrupy descending power chord pattern takes us exactly where we want to be led.

Next the band takes on The Rolling Stones circa 1978 with a swaggering, very danceable 'It's Just A Dream'. Funk interpreted by a rock band is such a beautiful thing when it's done right, and this song's superb intro is straight out of Studio 54. It sounds like you've heard it a thousand times on the first listen. Harrison plays some acrobatic bass that moves things around nicely, and Deamer drives it like a Lamborghini through the streets of Rome. It's been a very long time since you've heard something like this, so be prepared to smile.

'Yesterday's Casanova' is the most musically adventurous tune on the record, and it's a brilliant piece of work. It's heavy as hell with chainsaw guitars, Harrison comes across sounding like a brontosaurus, and Deamer sounds pleasantly possessed - then all of a sudden the tune takes a stunning turn into a Bowie-esque bit of romantic melodicism that places you directly under a streetlight on some dark street corner in a dangerous part of the world. Robinson supplies another great solo, and his noise pop guitar explosions throughout the track are a thrill. This is going to be one of my favorite tracks of 2015, it's early in the year, but this is a classic.

'Black Sheep Are Beautiful' turns the blues on its ear with some very Living Colour-contoured riffing going on in the verses, and then the chorus goes to a marvelously melodic space. All too brief, but very beautiful.

This band sounds like it could cover anything and make it their own - whether it's a song, a style, or a sub-genre, they completely, completely make it their own. It sounds like they've played together their whole life as they effortlessly change lanes and take their muse where they will, and with the perfect man out front delivering the message. Michael Des Barres sings like his life depends on every utterance, and the true beauty is that that is indeed, the truth. He knows what's at stake - why let a single moment go past without reaching for the stars? 'Supernatural Lovers' sees the band taking on James Brown via the brilliant Was (Not Was), and I can't tell you how much I'm enjoying this. Nigel Harrison plays a minor miracle of a bass line that percolates underneath Robinson's rubber band chording, and you can't help but move with this music. This is disco infused rock of the best sort. A joy.

The rock returns with a great riff that announces 'Liberty Train', and once again a driving rocker gets turned on its ear by a brilliant chorus. This should - if there is any justice in the world - go down as one of the great rock guitar records. If you gave this record to a young guitar player, and it was all he had from which to learn, he'd be just fine if he absorbed all the glory contained within these tracks. Des Barres supplies every song with line after line after line of pure passion, emotion, melody, and intelligent wordplay. Poetry that knows how to dance. In short, it's rock 'n' roll exactly as it is meant to be done - you play it like it's the last chance you're ever going to get.

'The Key To The Universe' is a stunningly brilliant piece of music. You have a singer that has lived to not just tell the tale, but who also serves as a spokesman for what should and can be. You have a band that sounds like it has absorbed the songs and the singer, and they are solidly set together in making this soundtrack sound like the story, and they have succeeded magnificently.

It's going to be a long year, but this will be in my top 10. Probably pretty damned close to the top. Do yourself a favor, and buy this album the minute it is available, you'll thank me for it.

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