Tuesday, April 23, 2013

John Batdorf and James Lee Stanley - All Wood and Stones II - CD Review

 Being the rebel that I am, I love it when I can prove the "conventional wisdom" wrong! So I therefore particularly relish the opportunity to skewer two of these "truisms" at the same time. Two such commonly held beliefs coud be stated simply as "remakes are always inferior to the originals" and "sequels are never as good as the first of the series". Well I just finished listening to a CD that is essentially a sequel to an album of remakes, a double-whammy that should doom the project to failure according the widely-held notions! I am very happy to tell you, that the new "All Wood and Stones II" CD by John Batdorf and James Lee Stanley is a such a fun concept and so perfectly executed that it is not only a wonderful exercise in nostalgia, but also a vital and new-sounding musical set in its own right.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        So here's the set-up:  Back in 2004 (can it REALLY be that long ago?), two of my  favorite singer/songwriters announced a new joint project. John Batdorf and James Lee Stanley in many ways are among the original trend-setters of  Southern California acoustic rock, guys whose careers have been contemporary with luminaries like Jackson Browne and The Eagles. While neither have enjoyed the commercial success of such acts, their original writing and recordings over the years have consistently been of world-class quality and had tremendous musical influence. So when they announced "All Wood and Stones" as a musical re imagining of the songs of the early Rolling Stones done as SoCal acoustic rock, I was pretty surprised. Songwriters of their stature rarely do "cover tunes" and certainly not whole albums of them! But the final product they came up with, eleven of the best known and most beloved Stones songs significantly rearranged, was a really interesting and fun CD that was quite popular, as were the shows they did together to support the CD.                                                     

Since then, nine years have passed and that CD remains a favorite of mine and it still sells well over the internet and at the guys' live performances. So when I heard John and James were talking about doing another album together, this time it wasn't a big surprise. I figured they would find another artist or group to cover this way; there was talk it might be a Motown album or something similar. Yet, heeding "conventional wisdom", I was really shocked that they chose to do another album of Stones material! But now that I have the new CD in hand to listen to, I understand their decision. The new CD may have fewer "hit" songs than the original, but it includes what, in my opinion, are some of greatest tunes in the Rolling Stone archive which are given the SoCal rearrangement and meticulously recorded. To my great surprise, I like it even more than the first one!

The tunes run the gamut from huge hit songs like "Honky Tonk Women" to obscure album cuts like "Before They Make Me Run" and tunes from early years, like "Time Is On My Side" to later stuff like "Miss You". Like the first CD, some songs are drastically changed and rearranged and some are fairly faithful to the original, but all feature the note-perfect musical arrangement and production skills for which both of these artists have long been known. This time around, all vocals and all guitars were done by John and James, with bass by old pros Bill Batstone and Chad Watson and drums by Tom Walsh.

I won't bore you all with note-by-note and song-by-song dissection. These tunes are mainly about having fun and fun is an elusive feeling not readily analyzed and explained. But this "fun" is not something to dismiss as unimportant! In the realm of the singer/songwriter, it is an element often under-appreciated and ignored, which can lead to some ponderous music trying too hard to be "important". John and James have never been guilty of this and this album is a genuine reflection of the fun-loving spirit within each of these artists. And how do two old musical pros have "fun"? By applying the years of perfecting their art to these tunes, finding the most interesting aspects to highlight and making some subtle comparisons to other music. I simply love the little hints of Beatles music that pop up, like the driving Beatle-esque guitar riff behind this version of "Honky Tonk Women" or the "yes it is" line of "Time Is On My Side" that evokes the old Beatles song, "Yes It Is". There are lots more of these always-subtle musical allusions lurking in the shadows of this recording; the "feel" of Steve Stills' guitar work in the Buffalo Springfield tune "Mr. Soul" pushing underneath "Jumping Jack Flash"  or the good-time, call and response "yeah,yeah" towards the end of "Get Off Of My Cloud" that sounds right out of "Hang On Sloopy" by The McCoys. It doesn't get much more fun than a chorus of  "Sloopy" !!!!

But all of this fun is not to deny the artistry John and James display here! Front and center in all these tunes are the magnificent vocals of both. It almost seems unfair to the competition to meld maybe the two best male vocalists in the acoustic music scene here on this one CD. James' full, deep voice brings a distinctive darkness to songs like "Miss You" and "Jumping Jack Flash" which make these versions even more meaningful than the originals. And while John has always been known for the sweet, higher vocals that he wields here on ballads like "Play With Fire" and "Wild Horses", his bluesier takes on tunes like "Honky Tonk Women" and "Sympathy For Devil" growl with surprising intensity! And these voices were made to be blended! These guys really know how to use them behind the lead vocals to grand effect. I wish I had the technical capacity to isolate just the background vocals on this album, picking them out of the full mix they sound simply astonishingly great and, on songs like "Get Off Of My Cloud" or "Before They Make Me Run", they stand out as the most dynamic component of the arrangements.

Then there is the guitar work! Like on the Stones' original versions, these songs are built around the framework of the guitar chording and riffs. John and James have such great voices, I think their guitar virtuosity can often be overlooked. The guitar playing is perfection everywhere on this album. Its hard for me to tell who does what where on this CD, but there are some really remarkable guitar parts played all across the CD. The lead guitar work is all done on acoustic, and I believe the guys both take turns at it, but its hard to tell. And while the acoustic guitars are able to make some songs really rock out, they can also sound almost like a harpsichord behind "Play With Fire"!

So, take a listen yourself and see if you agree that, "conventional wisdom" be damned, this is a thoroughly exciting and inspired "sequel of remakes" that are just a whole lot of fun! The ten songs on this album have already stood up to the test of time in their original versions but here they are injected with new life and added meaning in the fascinating new interpretations. As a whole album they come off as a completed work and there is a fitting irony in the closing tune, because for me, as a huge fan of these tunes back in the day and as a huge fan of  these new versions, I can truly say, "Time Is On My Side".

Here is a link to the "All Wood and Stones" website:
and the Facebook page:

And  links to John Batdorf's websites:


and his Facebook page:

And a link to James Lee Stanley's website:

and James' Facebook page: