'Sputnik Cafe', the Rockin' Highliners' debut on Severn Records, consists of twelve quality tracks written by lead singer Robert Tycholis. Like virtually every other blues outfit, the Highliners have had their share of ups and downs over the years--whether it be personnel changes, difficulties in landing recording deals, or just the day-to-day hassles that form part of the business. 'Sputnik Cafe' should turn around their fortunes, and finally get these guys into orbit.
Tycholis is a dominating vocal presence, much akin to Big Joe Turner and Howlin' Wolf, although his lyrics have an urbane polish and sophistication to them that neither of those rough hewn legends would have felt really comfortable with. Tycholis' voice has also been compared to Phil Alvin's--lead singer of the Blasters and a white blues singers with impeccable credentials.
The first tracks of 'Sputnik Cafe' create a smokey, almost jazzy vibe, and I was especially smitten by "Fallin' Down" with its sense of foreboding doom. "Wheeler Dealer" also held me in its sway, lyrically for sure, but more importantly by the gripping guitar work that ebbed and flowed throughout it like a meandering stream. I can't say enough good things about the fretwork which adorns 'Sputnik Cafe'.
The ultra-weird, "canine" blues of 'Roll Over Rover' accelerates things into more swinging territory, and along with "It Doesn't Matter" turns the beat frequency into high gear. "It Doesn't Matter", along with "Forty Acres", are my two favorite tracks. Hold a blindfold test with roots music aficionados: Most would say they're by the Blasters.
I especially dug "Down In the Bottom" which turned up the heat quotient with its murky intensity, while "Fine Time" also twisted my antennae with its haunting ethos and gripping guitar shadings. There's not a hint of filler to be found on 'Sputnik Cafe', meaning every listener will probably have different tracks to tune their radar to.
You have to appreciate the special contributions of Benjie Porecki (a Severn artist in his own right) on keyboard duties. His slinky background soundings lent an even more persuasive rhythmic bottom to the entire enterprise.
'Sputnik Cafe' earns my highest possible recommendation.
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