Electronica Album Reviews
The Arkestra’s first album in 20 years is an intoxicating, cosmic tribute to Sun Ra
For much of his long, prolific career, the late Sun Ra (born plain Herman Blount) found his music marginalised. Though rooted in jazz tradition, its atonal tunings and proto-electronica, along with its space-age themes and gaudy costumes, were too way out for an era of studied, mohair-suited cool. Since his death in 1993, however, Ra has become hailed as a pioneer of Afrofuturism, whose influence runs from Funkadelic to Black Panther. Meanwhile Ra’s band, the Arkestra, have toured tirelessly, presided over by alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, now 96.
This first album in 20 years proves an inspired tribute to the master, revisiting celebrated pieces like Satellites Are Spinning, with its promise “A better day is breaking/ The planet Earth’s awakening”, beautifully sung by violinist Tara Middleton. The vocalised, upbeat mood (Ra was essentially utopian) maintains through the bebop riff of Rocket Number Nine, and Allen’s title track, whose finger-snapping big band arrangement evokes a nightclub on Mars, while the swaying Egyptian melody of Angels and Demons at Play and the foreboding Sea of Darkness come from deeper space. It’s a heady brew, challenging but intoxicating. Ra always said his music was from the future… and now it has arrived.
Making her debut album alone on analogue machines, Minus has come up with an inspiring manifesto for 2020
As acts of rebellion go, Ela Minus’s is an intimate yet powerful one. On her debut album, the Colombia-born, Brooklyn-based artist makes personal-is-political statements amid alternately soothing and rousing electronic soundscapes, all of which she crafted alone in her apartment using analogue equipment.
A surprisingly melodic proper album is welcome from the electronic pioneers, but its dystopian soundworld is now in a crowded market
As the devastating and the downright uncanny both become normalised, few things still have the power to surprise in 2020. That said, few would have expected Autechre to conjure up an album-length album, actually conceptualised and sequenced true to the format. The Rochdale-originated duo’s recent output consists of weighty folder dumps, marathon radio residencies and other swathes of experimental electronics, club deviations and wee-hours abstractions. These exciting, befuddling drops are often left raw and unsorted for fans to construct their own canons from the pair’s extensive discography. Now relocated and working remotely from one another long before lockdown, Autechre have been mining away at a sound influenced more temporally than geographically: electro, bleep techno, funk and old-school hip-hop styles of the 80s and 90s continue to shape the direction of the Warp Records mainstays.
Pop outsider and lockdown living-room star Murphy distils her disco expertise and musical idiosyncrasies in songs pulsing with dancefloor power
The first thing you hear on Róisín Murphy’s fifth album is a snatch of spoken word, an extract from a monologue that appears in full later. “I feel my story is still untold,” she says, “but I’ll make my own happy ending.”
Murphy’s fans may concur with the sentiment. It’s an article of faith among them that the former Moloko frontwoman should be more famous than she is: look online and the word “underrated” seems to attach itself to her like a nickname. Watching the footage of her performing her former band’s 2003 single Forever More at Glastonbury, or the videos she posted from her living room during lockdown, you can see what they mean. The former offers eight minutes during which Murphy manages to sport four different, preposterous headdresses and execute a mid-song costume change from late-80s raver in puffa jacket, beanie and KLF T-shirt into a glamorous red dress and feather boa. The latter’s high point might well come during a rendition of Murphy’s Law, a single from Róisín Machine, that also involves several changes of headdress: high-kicking around her coffee table, she falls flat on her arse, rectifying herself with a defiant bellow of “I’m alright!” You watch them and think, yes, the charts probably would be a more interesting place if, say, Dermot Kennedy or James Arthur made way for Murphy.
(Forever Living Originals)
Just 12 weeks after their previous double album, the British group dance from sorrow to resistance, mixing fearless lyrics with house, funk and disco
Over the last two years, Sault’s music has arrived out of the blue: no interviews, no photos, no videos, no live appearances, no Wikipedia entry, a perfunctory and entirely non-interactive social media presence. Physical copies of their three previous albums have credited Inflo as producer – otherwise best-known as the producer of Little Simz’ Grey Area and co-writer of Michael Kiwanuka’s Black Man in a White World, each of which won him an Ivor Novello award. Kiwanuka got a guest artist credit on their last album, Untitled (Black Is), released in June. So did Laurette Josiah, the founder of a north London children’s charity, who it turns out is Leona Lewis’s aunt. The only other available fact is that proceeds from the album “will be going to charitable funds”. Speculation about the collective’s other members has neither been confirmed nor denied, nor has anyone claimed responsibility for music that’s thus far been rapturously received on both sides of the Atlantic.
You could decry this approach as counterproductive. Perhaps a higher profile, a modicum of desire to play the game, might have helped turn Wildfires, the exquisite and excoriating standout from Untitled (Black Is), into the hit it deserved to be. Yet Sault seem to use the time they save by not promoting their albums or engaging with the public profitably. Untitled (Rise) is not only their fourth album in 18 months, it’s their second double album in just over 12 weeks. It’s a work rate that would seem remarkable at any point in pop history, but feels positively astonishing today, compounded by the fact that its predecessor gave the impression of having been largely written and recorded in response to the murder of George Floyd, less than a month before it was released. Pop history is littered with swiftly released singles reacting to events in the news – two of them made No 1 during the Covid-19 lockdown – but you struggle to think of an entire album doing so, let alone one as good as Untitled (Black Is).
Metal Album Reviews
Rock Album Reviews
Zakk Wylde, Blasko, and Joey Castillo finally decided to go into the studio as Zakk Sabbath and cover the the self-titled debut from Black Sabbath in its entirety under the title Vertigo. Black Sabbath’s now 50-year-old debut is one of the most iconic albums in metal history and is credited as the first real heavy …
Hidey ho, all you Skullsnboners! Que pasa? Hope you are all surviving the summer of isolation and no live shows. In the words of the greatest philosopher of our time, Butthead, “This sucks more than anything that has ever sucked before.” But one thing that does not suck this summer is the end of five …
The forthcoming EP by the grindcore legends Pig Destroyer, The Octagonal Stairway, is a killer mix of their iconic, intense grindcoredeliverd during the first half and industrial noise tracks filling the second. With song lengths ranging from 45 seconds to 11 minutes, there is a lot of variety in this release, including an appearance from …
Evil disco lives! There has been much speculation and some controversy in the metal community around Static-X releasing a new album featuring the final vocal recordings of Wayne Static with original members, Tony Campos, Koichi Fukuda, and Ken Jay. Some said it’s a money grab. Others said it shouldn’t be done because Wayne isn’t here. …
I have been a champion of Canada’s Jupiter Hollow since they first hit the scene three years ago, so right up front, I fucking love these guys. It’s been a few years since we have heard from them, but it’s been worth the wait. With the release of their new album, Bereavement, they are back, …
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Jazz & Blues Album Reviews
Sir Rod & The Blues Doctors – Come Together
Modern Blues Harmonica – 2020
11 tracks; 48 minutes
Most blues fans will be familiar with the story of Satan & Adam which has recently featured in a Netflix documentary. Mr. Satan (real name Sterling Magee) was a one-man band street performer in NYC who met harmonica player Adam Gussow in Harlem in 1986. They joined forces as Satan & Adam, made a brief cameo appearance on U2’s Rattle And Hum in 1988, and enjoyed a run of three albums together before Sterling retired to Florida. Since then Adam has been based in Mississippi, establishing a fine reputation as a writer, teacher and performer. Since 2012 Adam has released two albums on which he played harp and percussion with guitarist Alan Gross as The Blues Doctors. Adam has worked for many years on a film documentary about Satan and Adam which eventually saw the light of day in 2018. One person who saw the film was Roderick Patterson, a singer, dancer and motivational speaker who happens to be Sterling Magee’s nephew. Adam and Roderick (who performs as ‘Sir Rod’) discussed a collaboration which started out as a possible tribute to Sterling but became a larger project, now realized as Sir Rod & The Blues Doctors. The three musicians offer us a broad palette of music with four songs from the Satan & Adam repertoire, two new originals and five covers from James Brown, Ray Charles, Rosco Gordon, Little Willie John and Howling Wolf. Rod handles all vocals and plays piano on one track, Adam is on harp and percussion, Alan on guitar; bass is added to two tracks by Jerry Jemmott and Bryan W Ward who also engineered the sessions in Mississippi in early 2020.
The album opens with the impressive title track, an uptempo number which calls for unity across the political divide and has been used by Common Ground Committee, a social justice, non-profit organization whose motto “Let’s de-polarise and unite America” is certainly well represented in this song co-written by Rod and Adam. Rod has a solid, powerful voice which can adapt across blues and soul styles and works well on “Sanctified Blues”, a Sterling Magee composition which has a sparse style wrapped round a faster section for Adam’s solo. The rousing “Seventh Avenue” describes how he lost a good woman because of his ‘fooling around’ and “I Want You” completes a trio of Satan & Adam tunes with plenty of tough harmonica. The covers start with a short run through “I Got You (I Feel Good)”, demonstrating that you can cover James Brown without a big band and Rod sounds convincing. Rod again proves his worth as front-man with a commanding performance on a down home country blues take on “Little Red Rooster” before the uptempo RnB of “Heartbreaker”, a Little Willie John vehicle back in 1960; Adam’s percussion really drives this one along!
Rod recalled his uncle playing a tune on the piano when he was a boy and used what he remembered of that tune to write “So Mean” which he plays himself on piano with just a little harp in the background. The minimal accompaniment works very well as Rod ponders why his girl does not appreciate him and reckons that she will regret it when he leaves. The stripped back piece makes a good interval before a thumping take on “No More Doggin’”. The trio reprises “Freedom For My People” which was the Satan & Adam piece featured on Rattle And Hum and closes the album with a great version of “What’d I Say”, again demonstrating the Blues Doctors’ ability to adapt to different styles of music. Adam plays brilliantly and Alan’s guitar is very clear in the mix on this track in particular.
A thoroughly enjoyable album, well worth hearing.
William Shatner – The Blues
Cleopatra Records CLO 1943
14 songs – 50 minutes
Former Star Trek captain William Shatner has been no stranger to music and the recording studio since blasting off into space aboard the Starship Enterprise in the mid-‘60s with the release of The Transformed Man LP on the Decca label, a concept album that juxtaposed spoken-word passages of classic poetry and pop tunes dealing with the existential struggle of identity – all delivered with the intense vocal gymnastics that made him a superstar on the small screen.
That disc was panned pretty much internationally, but remains viewed as a work of comic brilliance and as a priceless treasure among Trekkies. No matter whether it was a fluke of luck or an act of genius, the work created a niche market that Shatner’s been mining intermittently ever since. Mixed in among releases for his sci fi audience have been novelty albums that continued the theme forward, mixing multiple forms of music into his apparent sly, tongue-in-cheek performance.
This CD is the fifth release in Capt. Kirk’s relationship with Los Angeles-based Cleopatra Records, beginning with Seeking Major Tom in 2011 and, most recently, the holiday-themed album, Shatner Claus: The Christmas Album, two years ago. But this one takes listeners somewhere they’ve never gone before: He enlisted several of his favorite musicians to deliver his first blues effort. And it’s surprising it’s taken this long because the native Canadian has been a blues lover for decades.
Among the world-class talents laying down the backing tracks here are guitarists Kirk Fletcher, Brad Paisley, Sonny Landreth, Ritchie Blackmore, Ronnie Earl, Pat Travers and Harvey Mandel along with Canned Heat, all of whom sit in on one cut each. Also featured are Steve Cropper, James Burton, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Arthur Adams, Tyler Baxter and Albert Lee. They’re flushed out with an uncredited roster of session musicians.
With the exception of the final two cuts – a cover culled from the Canadian country-folk string band, The Dead South, and a final musing penned by Shatner himself, all of the songs here are classical blues chestnuts, that – propelled by his oddly cadenced vocal delivery – have seen far better days, beginning with a fiery, stinging intro from Paisley for Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago.”
The action slows to a tedious crawl for Willie Dixon’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby” despite masterful fretwork from Fletcher before Landreth fills Eric Clapton’s shoes admirably for a thoroughly forgettable take on Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.” Blackmore’s rendition of B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone” is understated and true blue before Earl steps to the plate for down-and-deep version of Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” as, for a second or two, Shatner issues something that almost sounds like singing.
The musical portion of this show diverts to Memphis briefly for a painful version of the Booker T/William Bell classic, “Born Under a Bad Sign,” propelled by sweet licks from former child protégé Bryant before Shatner does his best to destroy the enchantment laid down by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” despite Travers doing his best to keep things on the rails.
If Robert Johnson wasn’t spinning his grave after the open, he probably will be with the vocally emotionless version of “Crossroads” that’s up next aided by Burton, and Howlin’ Wolf will be spinning, too, with Shatner’s ineffectual reading of “Smokestack Lightnin’” despite six-string magic from Baxter. And Adams’ spectacular licks can’t save Don Robey’s “As the Years Go Passing By,” either.
It takes big cajoles for Bill to do what he attempts next — cover Canned Heat’s original “Let’s Work Together” backed by the band that made it famous, which almost works – before enlisting Cropper for turning the Bobby Troupe classic, “Route 66,” into a car wreck and Lee for “In Hell I’ll Be in Good Company,” The Dead South tune that begins mercifully with an extended instrumental intro. The disc ends with “Secrets or Sins,” a word poem backed by Daniel Miller on guitar.
The music quality on The Blues is exceptional throughout – as you’d expect after a quick glance at the roster, and Shatner fans probably will love this one to the moon and back. If you’re a true blues lover, however, you’ll probably feel more like I do: Sorry, Bill, but the thrill is gone, I can quit you, baby. I feel like I’ve been born under a bad sign, made worse because listening to this felt like the years were passing me by. I’m already in hell.
Beam me up, Scotty! I’m done!
A Band Called Sam – Legacy
Highlander Records – 2020
9 tracks; 42.11 minutes
Sam ‘Bluzman’ Taylor had a long career, playing with Joey Dee & The Starlighters in the 60’s, writing for Sam & Dave at the start of their career and acting as musical director for Otis Redding, The Drifters and The Isley Brothers. In his later years he lived in New York where he and his band played regularly until his passing in 2009. All the songs here were written by Sam, the album a tribute to Sam from the members of his last band, including daughter Sandra Taylor (a vocalist in her own right) and grandson Lawrence ‘LAW’ Worrell on guitar/vocals (Lawrence has played with Parliament and Amy Winehouse, amongst others): Angela Canini adds vocals to three tracks, Mario Staiano is on drums, Gary Grob on bass, Danny Kean on keys/synth horns and Sam’s protégé Gary Sellars on guitar. Richie Cannata from Billy Joel’s band is featured on sax and recorded the material at his studio, clearly a labour of love as it took nine years to complete!
We are generally in funky blues territory here with catchy tunes like “Hole In Your Soul” and “Nothing In The Streets” while “Next In Line” is a smooth 70’s style soul piece with Sandra and Angela sharing vocal leads. Lawrence sings and plays the wah-wah guitar on “Good To Ya” which warns that “everything that’s good to ya ain’t always good for ya” and also takes the lead on “The Stinger”, an autobiographical piece based round Sam’s birth sign (Scorpio). The slow “Mother Blues” has a strong vocal from Sandra and plenty of space for the band to shine while “Devil In Your Eyes” is an upbeat shuffle, again with shared vocals from Sandra and Angela. Rather the outlier here is “Funny”, a 1961 hit for Maxine Brown who reprises the ballad impressively, swapping verses with Angela on a classic torch song with a lovely sax break from Richie. The opening track “Voice Of The Blues”, with bright guitar and great horns, may just be the pick of this worthy tribute to a relatively unsung hero.
Big Bo – Preaching the Blues
Natural Records NR 18-008
12 songs – 39 minutes
Since emerging from the Delta a century ago the blues has become a universal language, and there’s no one on the planet today who speaks it as fluently as the early masters as Bo Brocken, a throwback musician who regularly dominates awards season in his homeland, the blues hotbed of the Netherlands.
Working under the name Big Bo, Brocken is a multi-instrumentalist who works in the one-man band format, simultaneously playing acoustic, resonator or electric guitar while providing percussion on a foot-operated drum set. His repertoire covers the full spectrum of first-generation American blues, including Hill Country, Delta, Piedmont and ragtime stylings, covering the classics in manner that would make the masters smile.
His introduction to the music came as a child through his parents’ love for John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. He’s been playing guitar since age 12 and performing in public since he was 17. He’s a stylish fingerpicker with a soulful, slightly raw voice who’s been entertaining audiences across Europe since the ‘80s.
A 2015 winner in the solo/duo category at the Dutch Blues Challenge, he made it to the semi-finals at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis the following winter. His 2015 CD, Preaching the Blues, captured top honors in the Dutch Blues Awards, and, most recently, he was nominated for four trophies – best blues act, best blues musician, audience favorite and special achievement – last year – high praise considering the quality of his competition.
Like its predecessor, this album is a prize-winner, too. It was recorded in mono at Uncle Larson’s Studio in The Hague, using a single vintage BBC-AXB microphone, and the sound quality is sensational throughout. A collection of 12 familiar covers that are delivered with reverence and enthusiasm, the set opens with Robert Johnson’s “Preaching Blues.” Big Bo sings in perfectly unaccented English, and his playing style features skillful octave jumps on the six-string.
Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “Going Over the Hill” follows before Big Bo dips into the catalog of Jazz Age superstar Chippie Hill for her 1924 hit, “Trouble in Mind.” Next up is Bukka White’s cautionary “Sic ‘em Dogs On,” before the set shifts gears for a take on Blind Willie Johnson’s familiar “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning.”
Bessie Smith’s ballad, “Back Water Blues,” follows, yielding to Charley Patton’s Hill Country pleaser, “Mississippi Boweavil Blues,” Blind Willie McTell’s “Southern Can Is Mine” and Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues.” Three more pleasers — the traditional “Pallet on the Floor,” Blind Willie’s “You’re Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond” and Skip James’ often overlooked “Look at the People Standing at the Judgement” – bring the action to a close.
If your tastes are deep old-school, you’ll enjoy this one. Like Traveling Riverside – which is its equal, it’s available direct from the artist (address above) with multiple payment options, including Paypal.
Ben Levin – Carryout Or Delivery
Vizztone Label Group – 2020
12 tracks; 41 minutes
At just 21 years of age, Ben Levin is already on his third album and has received three nominations for Blues Blast awards – a pretty fair record for one so young. On this album we can see progression as Ben has written eight of the songs, one with his father Aron, and the disc is just his regular quartet, Ben on keys and vocals, Aron on guitar, Chris Douglas on bass and Oscar Bernal on drums. No special guests this time, just friends and family adding backing vocals to one track: brother Josh, Dad Aron, Howard Cohen and recording engineer Matt Hueneman. The album was recorded in June in Newport, KY. and produced by Ben and Matt.
The album opens with a run of seven originals. Ben’s piano leads us into “You Know”, a strong blues with terrific barrelhouse piano as Ben issues a warning to a girl that “if you run around on me I ain’t gonna be your fool no more”. “Stuck” is rather repetitive and perhaps the least successful track here but Ben hits another winner with “Too Good For Me”, a slow blues on which he switches to electric piano. The title track brings a jazzier feel to the album (as well as the ‘choir’ on the chorus) as Ben offers his services with a wink and a devilish smile: “I’m your personal Amazon man. I got loads of slack, everything you need. I’m coming to you on delivery”. The stop-start rhythm on “Have You Lost Your Mind?” recalls “I Ain’t Got You” and the tougher style is reflected in Aron’s jagged solo. Another switch of styles comes on “Some Other Time” with a delicate groove set by the rhythm section, Aron’s jangling chords set against Ben’s electric piano and the melodic bass well up in the mix. Ben’s vocals work well on this soulful tune which lyrically has a wistful feel as Ben searches for ways to convince a girl that he may be young but can still love her, though that may be in the future. The instrumental “NOLA Night” does what the title suggests with double-fisted piano and terrific drumming. The final original is sandwiched within the covers, an amusing song co-written by Ben and Aron in which Ben states that some things that happen emotionally hurt like a “Papercut”, another NOLA influenced piece with piano in Fats Domino style.
Ben covers four songs from a varied set of artists: Placed just before “Papercut” in the album running order, Frank Frost’s “My Back Scratcher” is another tongue-in-cheek song played here in a funky style with Ben on organ. Chicago’s Harold Burrage is the source for the blues instrumental “The Buzzard” with Ben again on organ while Bill Nettles’ “Hadacol Bounce” is probably best known from Professor Longhair’s version and Ben’s piano is very much in NOLA style here; for those unaware, Hadacol was a patent medicine marketed as a vitamin supplement though its main attraction, especially in ‘dry’ southern states, may have been the 12% alcohol included as a ‘preservative’! Floyd Dixon’s sentimental ballad “Time Brings About A Change” brings the album to a quiet close as Ben reflects on how things can change in just a year – probably very true in the meteoric rise of this young piano man
With sleeve notes written by Blues Blast’s Marty Gunther, this well written and performed album shows continuing development of a genuine talent who is spreading his wings stylistically.
Pop Album Reviews
The shape-shifting duo, who met on a boat, channel Moby and the Avalanches on their solid debut
Singer-songwriter Tessa Cavanna and producer Christian Pinchbeck first crossed paths in 2017. He heard her singing, so the story goes, when she walked past his narrowboat in east London and was so impressed he invited her to hop on board and record in his studio. The resulting project, Girlhood, marry sweet, soaring vocals with iPad instrumentals, channelling the expansive spirit of the Avalanches and the gospel-tinged beats of Moby. In other words, at times they can sound anachronistic.
It’s the older tracks, such as Bad Decisions and Milk & Honey, that really shine on their self-titled debut – the former with its taut percussion and uplifting vocals; the latter all spiralling melodies and trip-hoppy scratches. Queendom, meanwhile, is smooth and soft, while Fever Sweat recalls the atmospheric warmth of producer Flume, and Keep On and The Love I Need possess a housey euphoria. So, while there’s nothing especially fresh-sounding here, Girlhood is a solid set of breezy electropop with a hint of future possibilities.
Actors, poets and musicians tackle various posers on super-producer Fraser T Smith’s inventive debut
This is the first artist project from super-producer Fraser T Smith, architect of Stormzy and Dave’s debuts alongside Kano’s pivotal Made in the Manor. Smith’s debut wrestles with 12 oversized questions, answered by actors, poets, musicians and other artists with spoken word, poetry and some joyously unpredictable music.
Some of these queries are too gnomic or exhausted to be worth repeating. What Is Love? has been asked since the dawn of language, or at least since Haddaway in 1994. How Much Is Enough? will not be solved by either Kojey Radical’s 41-second musings nor by the luscious pop rap Million$Bill that follows. Interludes such as Es Devlin’s engaging aperçus during Why Are We So Divided When We’re So Connected? are too brief to be meaningful, yet not so long as to disrupt the album’s flow.
Damon Albarn is the melodic anchor to this pioneering album that balances concept with fun
The Now Now (2018) was one of those Gorillaz albums that dispensed with the hip hop-led collaborations that have often defined this band of ink and flesh. Guests are in full effect, though, on its follow-up: what’s billed as Season One of the band’s Song Machine concept, compiling the tracks Gorillaz have released monthly via their YouTube channel since January, plus extra helpings.
Everything that has ever been engaging about Gorillaz is present in spades here. Playfulness and conceptual ambition are all anchored by Damon Albarn’s melodic melancholy and his side-eye at the suboptimal state of things. His Bowie fixation waxes hard on unreleased tracks – such as The Lost Chord – as well those already in the public domain (Aries).
Adele proved herself she’s more than just as a power-house singer by serving as host of this weekend’s episode of Saturday Night Live. Adele used her opening monologue to address two questions on everyone’s mind. “My album is not yet finished,” she revealed, before going on to explain why wasn’t…
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An album about fallen comrades sees the E Street Band deliver the distilled elixir of their best stadium-filling form
While Bruce Springsteen was performing Springsteen on Broadway, the stage iteration of his 2016 memoir, his former teenage bandmate, George Theiss, was dying of cancer. Well before the E Street Band, there were the Castiles, an incubator where Springsteen first played guitar, then sang, from 1965 to 1968.
As the end neared, Springsteen held a vigil at the North Carolina bedside of his former musical sparring partner. When Theiss died, Springsteen became the only surviving Castile, a realisation that spawned a new song, The Last Man Standing.
It’s cheesier than a Monterey Jack… but exactly the album some people could use right now