Album Reviews: The Cream of the Early Spring Crop

By , Contributor

Spring has sprung but you’d think it was still Christmas season to judge by the number of CDs being released. Here’s a look at a few of the more interesting ones to come my way lately.

Bianca De Leon, Love, Guns & Money. The song title “I Sang Patsy Cline (the Night Noriega Fell)” only hints at the many influences that fuel Bianca De Leon’s recordings. This soulful singer/songwriter has an obvious affection for Tex-Mex and Central American music and for the work of fellow Texans like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Jerry Jeff Walker. But it’s not surprising to learn that she has studied classical guitar—or that she decided what to do with her life after hearing Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” This fourth CD features some fine originals plus a medley of Van Zandt’s “Nothin’” and Hank Williams’s “Ramblin’ Man.” The album title refers to a song called “Guns and Money,” but a more fitting moniker for the record might be Love, Loss & Liquor. Several of these tunes find their protagonists lamenting faded romances while seeking refuge in whiskey, drinking tequila, or eyeing stale wine or “bottles on the table.” If such songs are autobiographical, De Leon’s life hasn’t been easy: in any event, she clearly finds comfort in her music, and I suspect you will, too.

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Various Artists, Blues for Big Walter. This album offers a well-deserved tip of the hat to Walter Horton, who was known publicly as Big Walter and is widely considered to be one of the best blues harmonica players of all time. The 16-track, 75-minute program finds a motley crew of blues luminaries—including Kim Wilson, Robert Lockwood, and Bob Corritone—paying tribute to the artist, who died at age 60 in 1981. The CD incorporates memorable, harp-spiced versions of blues classics like “Rambling on My Mind” and “Worried Life Blues”; also here is the nearly 19-minute “Sugar Ray Medley,” which features soul/blues singer and harmonica player Sugar Ray Norcia and the Bluetunes on Horton’s “Walter’s Boogie,” Duke Ellington’s “I Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” and other classics.

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Jeff Jensen, Live: The River City Sessions. Jeff Jensen’s last album, Morose Elephant, showed off his passion and versatility, but he turns out to be even more impressive in a concert setting. This 13-track collection, recorded at a Memphis gig in December 2015, kicks into high gear right after an MC opens the show and never lets up. Backed by a bass player and drummer, Jensen delivers 10 originals plus covers of T-Bone Walker’s “T-Bone Shuffle, Tom Waits’s “Heart Attack and Vine,” and Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” the latter in a show-closing, nearly-10-minute performance. Jensen’s songs are solid and his vocals pack a punch but it’s his blistering guitar work that will really make you stand up and cheer.

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Terri Binion, The Day After the Night BeforeThe 2011 death of her spouse in a workplace accident led Terri Binion to make her first album in more than a decade. The result is a diverse yet cohesive collection of folk-based, country- and rock-spiced tunes. Binion is a first-rate vocalist and songwriter and this well-produced album features strong backup that incorporates everything from acoustic and electric guitars and pedal steel to Mellotron, xylophone and—to quote the liner notes—“other oddities.” Binion writes and sings from the heart and the inventive results are deeply affecting. Let’s hope she doesn’t wait as long as she did last time to issue a follow-up.

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Jason Wilber, Echoes. The title of this ninth solo album reflects the inclusion of the Pink Floyd tune of the same name but also, I assume, the fact that the set consists exclusively of covers. The good news is that Jason Wilber, a longtime guitarist for John Prine, doesn’t in fact merely echo the originals; he proves to be an imaginative interpreter who adds something fresh to most every track. And the song choices are as interesting as the performances. Wilber does include a few well-known tunes—among them Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” (a hit for the Carpenters) and Mick Jagger and Keith Richard’s “As Tears Go By” (which scored for Marianne Faithfull)—but most of these tracks are more obscure: David Bowie’s early “Oh You Pretty Things” is here, as are Big Star co-leader Chris Bell’s “I Am the Cosmos,” Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed,” and Joni Mitchell’s “Edith and the Kingpin.” A few more upbeat tunes to balance the predominant melancholy would have been welcome, as would a fuller backup. (Only a bit of percussion accompanies Wilber’s guitar and bass here.) Still, this is a strong release—good enough, surely, to move Wilber from out of Prine’s shadow and onto center stage.

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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 Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon as well as Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches and Encounters and Leonard Cohen…

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