‘Hulaland’ explores the musical history of the Hawaiian Islands

Hulaland‘Hulaland: The Golden Age of Hawaiian Music’
Various Artists (Rockbeat)
4 stars out of 5

As the temperature starts to dip with the winter months rapidly approaching, it’s only natural for thoughts to turn toward the tropical islands. And what better way to immerse yourself in the warmth of our nation’s 50th state than exploring “Hulaland: The Golden Age of Hawaiian Music”? This four-disc set from Rockbeat shines a sunny light on some of the best Hawaiian music from the 1920s to the 1970s.

It’s a mammoth undertaking — with 105 tracks clocking in at almost five hours — and includes some of the most elaborate cover art your likely to find anywhere. “Hulaland” takes the form of a 100-page, hardbound book filled with color photos, classic advertisements, and pages upon pages historical and biographical information about the origins of the music and the artists performing the songs.

Disc 1, “From Hollywood to Honolulu 1931-1957,” focuses on the early popularization of the island music my native Hawaiians and other A-list talents like Louis Armstrong, Ethel Merman, Jo Stafford, Burns & Allen and Slim Whitman.

Disc 2, “Splendor in the Grass Shack 1958-1974,” capitalizes on the Tiki craze and includes entries from, among others, The Ventures, The Waikiki’s and the instantly recognizable themes to “Hawaii Five-O” and “Hawaiian Eye.”

Disc 3, “Hawaiian Classics,” is the real find here. The 26-track set puts the spotlight on native Hawaiian musicians from the 1920s and ‘30s, including Kalama’s Quartet, King Nawahi and Hilo Hattie.

The collection concludes with Disc 4, “Contemporary Hawaiian Music.” It features a contemporary spin on the classicisland sound courtesy of The Coconut Trio, Ken & Bob, The Joy Buzzards and The Sweet Hollywaiians. Good stuff. (Jeffrey Sisk)

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Technology helps bring ‘new’ music from the legendary Elvis Presley on ‘If I Can Dream’

Elvis‘If I Can Dream’
Elvis Presley (RCA Legacy)
4 stars out of 5

It’s been almost 40 years since Elvis Presely passed away … yet thanks to the marvels of modern technology, we’re still getting new music from the King of Rock & Roll. “If I Can Dream” features classic Elvis vocal performances enhanced with brand-new orchestral accompaniment, as well as a duet with Michael Buble and appearances by Il Volo and Duane Eddy.

Elvis CD“This would be a dream come true for Elvis,” ex-wife Priscilla Presley says of the project. “He would have loved to play with such a prestigious symphony orchestra. The music … the force that you feel with his voice and the orchestra is exactly what he would have done.”

“If I Can Dream: is part of the year-long Elvis 80th Birthday celebration (www.ElvisTheMusic.com) that has included multiple album releases and the launch of “Direct From Graceland: Elvis at the O2,” the largest Elvis retrospective ever mounted in Europe.

Highlights abound on the 14-track, 50-minute platter — including a duet with Buble on “Fever,” Hall of Fame guitarist Eddy’s contributions on “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “An American Trilogy.” Additional standouts include “Burning Love,” “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” “In the Ghetto” and “How Great Thou Art.” Long live the King! (Jeffrey Sisk)

Drive-By Truckers unveil five-LP ‘It’s Great to Be Alive!’ live set

DBT‘It’s Great to be Alive!’
Drive-By Truckers (ATO)
4.5 stars out of 5

There are live albums and then there’s the latest jaw-dropping undertaking by Southern-tinged rockers Drive-By Truckers. “It’s Great to Be Alive!” is a five-LP live set featuring songs that span the band’s remarkable 20-year career. With 35 tracks clocking in at more than three hours, it’s as comprehensive a live package as you’ll likely find this side of The Grateful Dead.

DBT CD“We originally began thinking of ‘The Live Album’ (as we called it for several years) as first and foremost a collection of songs spanning our entire career as DBT,” band co-founder Patterson Hood explains. “Part of the joy of this incarnation of the band has been digging back and seeing what this band can do with songs from various periods of our history. I’m proud of every lineup we’ve had and of the records that we’ve made, but this incarnation has brought a primal energy and personal camaraderie to the process that takes it all to new levels.”

The album was recorded over three nights at San Francisco’s historic Fillmore Auditorium and finds the Truckers — anchored by founding members Hood and Mike Cooley — in fine form. Hood and Cooley share the vocal duties throughout and serve up sizzling renditions of “Lookout Mountain,” “Where the Devil Don’t Stay,” “The Righteous Path,” “Tornadoes,” “Putting People on the Moon,” “Gravity’s Gone,” “Ronnie and Neil,” “Three Dimes Down,” “Marry Me,” Angels and Fuselage” and “Zip City.” I can’t recommend this one highly enough. It’s an essential purchase for DBT fans and anyone who enjoys Southern rock. (Jeffrey Sisk)

Jazz outfit Project Grand Slam gets boost from vocalist Kat Robichaud on ‘Made in New York’

Project Grand Slam‘Made in New York’
Project Grand Slam (Cakewalk)
4 stars out of 5

I’m not a big fan of jazz fusion, so didn’t really know what to expect when Project Grand Slam’s latest long-player, “Made in New York” came across my desk a couple weeks ago. I’m happy to report that the Robert Miller-fronted collective — which includes Marcello Casagrani, Nathan Cepelisnki, Ben Sher and Joel E. Mateo — are on top of their game throughout a nine-track, 36-minute release that proved to be much more enjoyable than I expected going in.

Project Grand Slam CDProject Grand Slam’s secret weapon on “Made in New York” is guest vocalist Kat Robichaud, who achieved some acclaim during her 2013 stint on NBC hit “The Voice.” Robichaud lends her vocal gifts on two of the album’s best cuts in “New York City Groove” and the Jimi Hendrix cover “Fire.”

Additional keepers include “Around the Horn,” “Boston Common” and the set-closing “New York City Groove (Instrumental).” For an added treat, Project Gland Slam include a pair of live cuts — “Because She Said So” and “Cakewalk for Debra” — recorded live at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York City. Good stuff. (Jeffrey Sisk)

Rob Drabkin gets ambitious on new two-disc platter ‘Live Vol. II’

Rob Drabkin‘Live Vol. II’
Rob Drabkin (self-released)
3.5 stars out of 5

Wild-haired singer/songwriter Rob Drabin first appeared on my radar last year with the release of “Little Steps,” a self-penned collection of nine tunes that showcases both his writing prowess and a voice that comes across as a mix between Dave Matthews and Marcus Mumford. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable slab that remains in rotation on my iPod some 15 months later.

Rob Drabkin CDDrabkin gets ambitious on his latest undertaking, the two-disc “Live Vol. II.” Recorded at The Bluebird Theater in Denver, the Colorado native serves up 15 tracks totaling 95 minutes. It’s a nice blend of cover tunes — he tackles Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and “Boy in the Bubble,” Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” and Robert Earl Keen’s “Feelin’ Good Again,” among others — and originals that underscore just how good Drabkin and his band are on stage.

Among the real standouts on “Live Vol. II” are “Little Steps,” “Down to Fate,” new tune “Hope in a Hopeless World” and the aforementioned Simon and Gabriel covers. After a couple of whirls through this set, it’s easy to see why Drabkin is a rising star on the jam band scene. (Jeffrey Sisk)

Demi Lovato impresses at every turn on fifth LP ‘Confident’

Demi‘Confident’
Demi Lovato (Hollywood/Island/Safehouse)
3.5 stars out of 5

My esteem for pop songstress Demi Lovato grew by leaps and bounds during her Oct. 17 performance on “Saturday Night Live.” Her stripped down, emotion-fueled performance of “Stone Cold” was mesmerizing and had me noting multiple times that “the girl can really sing.” Lovato, 23, has left her celebrated Disney past behind her with the release of fifth full-length “Confident.”

Demi CDIt’s a consistently enjoyable gathering of pop tunes — arguably her best effort since her 2008 debut — that pays homage to current genre heavyweights like Katy Perry and Beyonce. That makes sense considering Lovato worked with a host of A-list producers — most notably Max Martin and Ryan Tedder — on a sprawling 15-track, 55-minute platter that includes a pair of remixes of No. 1 single “Cool for the Summer.”

The title track is a winner, as are the aforementioned “Cool for the Summer” and “Stone Cold,” and Lovato also scores with “For You,” “Kingdom Come” (featuring Iggy Azalea), “Lionheart” and “Father.” This is one of the finer pop offerings of 2015. (Jeffrey Sisk)

Canadian rockers Born Ruffians get ‘Ruff’ on latest full-length

Born Ruffians‘Ruff’
Born Ruffians (Yep Roc)
3.5 stars out of 5

Canadian indie rockers Born Ruffians have spent more than decade establishing themselves as a first-rate outfit in their homeland without ever breaking out in the United States. The rock-solid “Ruff” is the quartet’s fourth full-length album and, while not their best work to date (that would be 2010’s sophomore LP “Say It”), serves as a nice introduction to anyone unfamiliar with this talented band.

Born Ruffians CDFrontman Luke Lalonde (guitar/vocals) is the driving creative force behind Born Ruffians and he shines throughout “Ruff.” Rounding out the lineup are Mitch Derosier (bass), Andy Lloyd (guitar/keyboards) and Adam Hindle (drums). Born Ruffians have has earned comparisons to the likes of Talking Heads and The Strokes, and there’s a definite Vampire Weekend vibe evident on this 11-track, 39-minute platter.

Among the highlights here are “Don’t Live Up,” “When Things Get Pointless I Roll Away,” “& On & On & On,” “F*** Feelings,” “(Eat S***) We Did It” and “Let Me Get It Out.” Born Ruffians are a band that deserve to be on your radar. (Jeffrey Sisk)

Matt Nathanson delivers another winner in ‘Show Me Your Fangs’

Matt Nathanson‘Show Me Your Fangs’
Matt Nathanson (Vanguard)
3.5 stars out of 5

Over the past 20-plus years, San Francisco-based musician Matt Nathanson has carved out a fine career as a first-rate singer/songwriter. In recent years, Nathanson has made the shift from acoustic-based troubadour to more of a pop craftsman. The results on latest effort “Show Me Your Fangs” are quite good.

Matt Nathanson CDThe new approach is evident right from the outset with keepers “Giants” and “Adrenaline,” and Nathanson also scores with personal favorite “Bill Murray,” “the title track, the R-rated “Washington State Fight Song” and “Playlists & Apologies.” There aren’t any misfires on the 10-track release, making “Show Me Your Fangs” one of his more enjoyable offerings.

And for those who prefer Nathanson strumming on his acoustic guitar, he’s in the midst of an intimate club tour this fall. “After the last few summers of playing big places, and bashing it out with electric guitars, I’ve been missing just playing guitar and telling stories,” he explains. “So I’m leaving the rhythm section at home and Aaron (Tap) and I are gonna bust out, troubadour style.” (Jeffrey Sisk)

Harry Connick Jr. bounces back with solid ‘That Would Be Me’ LP

Harry‘That Would Be Me’
Harry Connick Jr. (Columbia)
3.5 stars out of 5

I’ve been a huge fan of New Orleans crooner Harry Connick Jr. for more than a quarter of a century. The still- boyish Connick is 48 years old now and has more than 30 albums to his credit. And while I remain a fan, I have to confess that he hasn’t delivered a record that’s blown me away since 2007’s hometown homage (and Hurricane Katrina fundraiser) “Oh, My Nola.” In fact, his two 2013 offerings — “Smokey Mary” and “Every Man Should Know” — are decidedly ho-hum.

Harry CDNewest platter “That Would Be Me,” while not a Connick classic, represents a fine return to form. For the first time in his career, Connick worked with a pair of producers (Eg White, Butch Walker) and it seems to have rejuvenated him.

“For the most part, nobody’s ever made musical decisions for me before,” Connick allows. “This is brand new territory. I’m used to jumping in head-first, but all of a sudden I found myself not in full control of the wheel anymore.”

Things get off to a first-rate start with “(I Like It When You) Smile,” “(I Do) Like We Do” and “Tryin’ to Matter,” and Connick later soars on “Do You Really Need Her,” “You Don’t Need a Man,” “(I Think I) Love You a Little Bit” and “Every Time I Fall in Love.” Welcome back, Harry. (Jeffrey Sisk)

Collective Soul still at it with ‘See What You Started By Continuing’

(Photo by Jason Guay)

(Photo by Jason Guay)

‘See What You Started By Continuing’
Collective Soul (Vanguard)
3.5 stars out of 5

When Georgia-based post-grunge outfit Collective Soul emerged on the scene in 1994 with their “Hints, Allegations & Things Left Unsaid” debut, I was convinced that they were destined to be the “next big thing.” The album went platinum on the strength of killer lead single “Shine” and soon Collective Soul were touring alongside Aerosmith and performing at Woodstock 94.

Collective CDThe band’s 1995 self-titled sophomore platter was even more successful, spawning five Top Ten singles, and again found Collective Soul going platinum. Just as quickly as they rose to prominence, however, the band’s popularity began to wane. They’ve continued to churn out albums over the years — many of them quite good, in fact — but have never matched that early commercial appeal. Latest effort “See What You Started By Continuing” is their ninth studio effort and is more enjoyable than expected.

Collective Soul’s alternative rock sound is a bit dated, but frontman Ed Roland & Co. still know their way around a catchy guitar riff. Things get off to a strong start with “This” and “Exposed,” and Collective Soul also score with “Contagious,” “Am I Getting Through,” “Tradition” and “Without Me.” This is a fine addition to the veteran band’s discography. (Jeffrey Sisk)