Music Reviews: Teddy Thompson, Bessie Jones, Joe Ely, G.F. Patrick, Gravel & Grace…and an Elliott Murphy Film

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Teddy ThompsonHeartbreaker Please. Teddy Thompson appears to have spent much of the past few years producing other artists (including the auspicious young country singer/songwriter Dori Freeman). Now, however, he’s back to making albums of his own, which is welcome news indeed. This sixth solo record, his first since 2016, features 10 tunes, all of which are well-sung, tightly constructed, and self-penned (one with cowriters). 

Listening to the CD, which marks Thompson as a major talent, you won’t be surprised to learn that he is a fan of artists ranging from Sam Cooke to Crowded House. You also won’t be surprised by the fact that a real-life romantic breakup underlies the lyrics. The opening number begins with “here’s the thing, you don’t love me anymore,” and there’s blood on all the tracks that follow. But Thompson, a son of famed British folk/rockers Richard and Linda Thompson, tempers his pain with well-hooked, frequently horn-spiced music that reminds me a bit of recent work by fellow Brit James Hunter.


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Bessie JonesGet in UnionMary Elizabeth “Bessie” Jones (1902-1984) grew up on St. Simons, a barrier island that is part of the state of Georgia. That’s where ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax first met and recorded her and her friends, the Georgia Sea Island Singers, in 1959 and 1960. This digital-only 60-track release—an expanded version of a 2014 two-CD set that features remastered audio—includes numerous performances from those sessions as well as material from 1961 through 1966 that has not previously been released. 

St. Simons was home to many former slaves (including Bessie’s grandfather) who had roots in Africa and the Bahamas. This folk and gospel collection—most of it a cappella, with just a tambourine or handclaps for rhythm—reflects those roots. Featuring superb unaffected lead vocals and stirring harmonies, it is essential listening for anyone interested in the origins of American music. (Note: The album will be available June 1 from alanlomaxarchive.bandcamp.com.)

 

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Joe ElyLove in the Midst of MayhemSinger/songwriter/guitarist Joe Ely first gained attention in 1970, when he joined with fellow Lubbock, Texas, artists Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore to form the Flatlanders. He released his eponymous debut solo album in 1977 and has since issued nearly two dozen studio and live LPs. Virtually all of them have been noteworthy, but none have been more timely than Love in the Midst of Mayhem, his first collection of new material since 2015’s Panhandle Rambler.

“When putting together an album,” Ely said recently, “I typically try to go with a story. This time I went with feeling. I see people out of work, out of food, and I see medical workers and others on the front lines putting their lives in danger every day. I also see the beauty of the human spirit at work…The time was right.”

Love in the Midst of Mayhem, which includes nine numbers credited solely to Ely and one cowritten with Gilmore and Hancock, benefits from the singer’s passionate lyrics and arresting tenor, as well as sparingly employed backup that features accordion. The melodies here aren’t quite as indelible as the words and the voice, but there’s enough of value to interest old fans and perhaps attract some new ones.


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G.F. PatrickOne Town OverLike John Prine (whose work he admires), the strong-voiced G.F. Patrick favors story songs. On this debut album, the Philadelphia-based singer/songwriter/guitarist tackles subjects ranging from alcoholism and depression to domestic abuse, midlife crises, and murder. It’s not exactly an upbeat collection, but it’s a frequently compelling one.

The protagonist in “Anger of Magdalene,” for example, is a high-school dropout, pregnant at 16, who works a minimum wage job, is sexually assaulted, and is “keeping my probation up, pissing in a Dixie cup.” There’s also a timely song called “Refugee’s Plea,” in which Patrick sings, “I’ll work for as much as you pay me, but my accent says that ain’t that much” and “It’s violence that I’m feeling, ain’t violence that I bring.” 

Hope does slip into these tales occasionally, such as in “Tennessee,” which lyrically recalls Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road”: “Dreaming large is what I do / Never had the drive to make a dream come true / But take my hand and dance with me / See if we can make it to Tennessee.” Alas, the last verse reveals that “plans went south about the Dixon line” as the protagonist’s girlfriend decided another dream wasn’t what she needed “and Philly was close enough to Tennessee.”

 

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Gravel & GraceBringing the BluesThis highly listenable debut from a seven-member R&B outfit has a lot going for it, starting with its pair of lead vocalists: veteran blues singer Big Earl Matthews, whose gravelly voice inspired half the group’s moniker, and the soulful Ava Grace, who also sounds like a veteran pro but is in fact a 17-year-old high school junior. 

Other strengths include guitarists Ricky Galvan and Isaac Lewis; the tastefully employed sax by William Melendez; and the material, which was written by Matthews, Grace, and other band members with the exception of “Love on the Brain,” a Rihanna cover. The subject matter is typical blues fare, with lines about broken hearts, too much drinking, and too little money; but the music, which evidences more than a bit of pop flavoring, belies the lyrics with its consistently upbeat, party-ready approach.

  

AN ELLIOTT MURPHY FILM

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Broken Poet, a new film based on a short story by rocker Elliott Murphy, stars the singer along with French actresses Joana Preiss and Francoise Viallon (Murphy’s wife), Michael O’Keefe, and Marisa Berenson. Also on hand for an extended cameo: Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa. The film tells the tale of a fictitious 1970s rock star named Jake Lion who was presumed to have died decades ago—until someone who sounds just like him is spotted singing in the Paris Metro and Rolling Stone sends a reporter to investigate. 

The story is entertaining, but the best thing about the movie is its soundtrack, which consists solely of songs written and performed—in many cases, on camera—by Murphy. It’s difficult to imagine that anyone could come away from this film without a strong desire to seek out more of his terrific music. In fact, more will be immediately available to anyone who watches, because the movie (available exclusively as a download from backstreets.com) comes with a bonus acoustic concert that includes Murphy’s Broken Poet theme song, “Drive All Night,” and a cover of Springsteen’s “Better Days.”

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Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com), a longtime magazine editor, has written about music, politics, and popular culture for more than 75 periodicals. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches…

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