Michael Stanley’s Latest Album “Tough Room” Is A Bittersweet Blast Of Adult Rock ‘N’ Roll
CLEVELAND, Ohio – Anna Sary, daughter of Michael Stanley, was planning to wait for an actual release date to listen to “Tough Room,” her late father’s latest album.
But at a family reunion on Easter Sunday to start packing copies that had been ordered, she changed her mind.
“I said, ‘You know, what? We are all here. We should put that on it, ”said Sary, who now runs Stanley’s Line Level Records label with his twin sister Sarah Sharp. “It was the first time we actually listened to it. It was really cool. Sweet-bitter is the best way to describe it.
This will likely be the prevailing sentiment as “Tough Room” rolls out, with the first orders released this week and a large release slated for late April. The longtime Cleveland rocker’s March 5 death at the age of 72 from lung cancer continues to reverberate through his hometown – including the celebration of Michael Stanley Day on March 25 , his birthday and a moment of silence during the opening at home of the Indians.
“Tough Room”, then, was his last musical statement, ending a recording career that began in 1969 with the band Silk and included solo releases as well as works with the Michael Stanley Band, Ghost Poets and Resonators. – to air nearly three dozen titles during this period.
“I am delighted that it is falling into the hands of the fans because I think it will help anyone who is grieving,” Sary said. “I think the fact that he has a final album is such a gift for everyone, especially the fans.”
Weighing in 15 tracks and 77 minutes, recorded primarily in Stanley’s home studio in Cleveland, “Tough Room” is nothing less than the epitome of Stanley, mixing the serious assessments of a singer-songwriter on life and society with ironic humor – with historical references (The 10th Century Queen Consort of France, Eleanor of Aquaitaine, Anton Chekov), and in the case of the blowing rocker “I’m Pissed”, a veritable hymn for “that guy shouting ‘Get off my lawn!’ “
Much of this is the work of an adult rock’n’roller, who no longer needs blazing tempos or metallic tones to get his point across, but has instead invested in textured tonal arrangements that, throughout, spotlight guitarist Danny Powers and singer Jennifer Lee. (with longtime running mate Tommy Dobeck on drums).
“Tough Room” also lives up to longtime engineer and executive producer Bill Szymczyk’s description as “pretty shaken up”, from the rising opening “Hold On” to the high-paced funk groove of “Mistakes Were Made. “, the blues flavor of” The Whole Truth “, the edge of” Chekov’s Gun “and the Americana twang of” When It All Comes Down “and” Wide Wide Turn “.
What fans won’t find are songs that emphasize mortality or in any way refer to Stanley’s health issues; “Tough Room” was, in fact, largely written and recorded before his last diagnosis, according to Szymczyk.
Even Stanley’s farewell words in the closing of the album “Fading Tones” – “And we are who we are / We have been where we have been … And these gifts we have received / Are here for pass them on / To anyone who might believe ”- really could have been written at any point in his career.
“(‘Passing Tones’) was the last he sent me, and I think it’s probably the only one where he’s figuring out what reality is,” Szymczyk notes. “Other than that, I don’t think his situation shows through in the songs because most of the songs, if not all, we wrote before he knew the end was near. So, I don’t think there are a lot of issues with that in these songs.
Stanley, says Szymczyk, had been working on “Tough Room” for several years, since his album “Stolen Time” in 2017. Although Stanley tried to keep a release schedule of “every 18 months or so,” according to the engineer, that The interim was marked by an open heart surgery as well as a flood in his studio in the basement. “He was basically two or three years behind,” Szymczyk says. “Then the pandemic struck. “
But the work continued and in early fall Szymczyk got a call. “He said, ‘I have a bunch of songs. I want that to happen, ”he says, although due to the pandemic the mixing was done in North Carolina, where the Szymczyk resides, rather than in Cleveland, where Szymczyk mixed the other albums.
A lot of songs have a story. For example, Szymczyk remembers doing a mix of “When It All Comes Down” for “Stolen Time”, but he was ultimately left out of that album. The impetus for the vigorous “Whole Lotta Hectic”, meanwhile, goes even further back and was inspired by a quote from Cam Newton’s press conference after a Carolina Panthers game.
“It was after a particularly wild game, and (Newton) said, ‘Yeah, there was a lot of commotion there,’” Szymczyk recalls. “And Michael was, ‘Wait a minute – there’s something going on there …’
“He wrote the song for the last album and sent it to me, and I said, ‘No I’m not crazy about this’ and he agreed and said, ‘I have to do this again.’ So this one has been bubbling for four or five years.
Szymczyk hears more recent influences in tracks such as “Mistakes Were Made,” “Red Skies,” and “Chekov’s Gun,” all of which reflect the political situation in the country during Donald Trump’s presidency. And “The Iron Range” was written in the wake of the protests that followed George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis last summer. “For me it’s one of the best songs he’s ever written,” Szymczyk says. “This is clearly all about race relations in America. The bridge – ‘Such a sad situation / a millimeter of skin / Can change your reservation / Where someone loses over and over again’ – is killing me.
Szymczyk brought the final version of “Tough Room” – which includes a dedication to longtime manager Mike Belkin, who passed away in 2019 – to the north in February, “plus an excuse for me to go see (Stanley)” one last time. . “We went downstairs, had a beer,” recalls Szymczyk. “We only played three or four songs, because it was fading quickly. His comments were something like “great job”, and the mood was very subdued. “
Sary, meanwhile, says it’s the first time his father, unusually, hasn’t given her or her sister a copy of the album ahead of time. “This could be the time,” she said, “but I never asked. I thought maybe there was a reason for it. This time, she notes. ‘hears the same as fans, in finite form.
“My first impressions were excellent,” she says. “When we played it once, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to listen to this one a lot …’ I hope he’s proud of it. I can’t wait for people to hear it. .