Dave Edmunds, On Guitar: Rags & Classics. No one has ever accused rocker Dave Edmunds of slacking off. He's been recording in bands and alone since the mid-'60s, and it makes perfect sense he would make another album where he plays everything, just like his solo debut did. This one, though, is all instrumentals, veering from Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" to Mozart's "Symphony No. 40 in G minor" (really). Only someone like Edmunds could pull that diversity off. His guitar becomes like a singing voice here, especially on something like Brian Wilson's "God Only Knows" or Elton John's "Your Song." It's clear Dave Edmunds is having a blast answering to no one but himself. In the liner notes he writes, "There was nobody else in the studio at any time--just the way I like it!" Now there's a person who plays better with himself than others. Ask Nick Lowe or the other esteemed members of Rockpile about that. In the end, though, this is lively music for all occasions--background and foreground--and proof positive that of all the U.K. invasionites that first arrived in America 50 years ago, Dave Edmunds has kept pushing forward with as much flair as anyone. He may not always be in the spotlight, but some of that is probably his doing. When the guitarist is playing, he has very few equals. The sultan of the Stratocaster still reigns supreme.
Galactic, Into the Deep. Take all the expectations for New Orleans' premiere funked-up band, and then turn them upside down. Because one thing is as sure as red beans and rice getting along together: Galactic is always going to surprise and rise past expectations. It's in their Crescent City DNA. Naturally, their grooves start with a monster drummer in Stanton Moore, a player that starts at ground zero with nailing the beat, and then goes to a universe of his own ensuring the music lives and breathes with finesse and fire. From that scintillating start, Galactic has fashioned a real statement of purpose. They wrangle in a wide-range of guests, including Macy Gray, JJ Grey, Mavis Staples, Brushy One String and others, that gives what is always back-snapping music a whole new shine. For anyone who worshiped at the altar of the Meters and wonder whatever happened to that uptown 13th ward awesomeness, Galactic has a few fun answers. They layer so many popping sounds and styles on top of the boogie down bottom that sometimes it sounds like a righteous cacophony of crosstown traffic, somewhere uptown where Tchoupitoulas and Napoleon run into each other. All this proves that there is still nothing like New Orleans music, and likely never will be. Galactic has planted their flag as the owners of Big Easy bragging rights as the contemporary big chiefs, and just to show they cover the entire waterfront, end with the incredibly cool album closer "Today's Blues," a gorgeous instrumental ode to all things Big Easy. Yeah you right.
Melody Gardot, Currency of Man. This is one all-in singer. That is, Melody Gardot demands total attention, never falling prey to the background music syndrome. Her life trail has been tough, and she's not afraid to put it all into song. After a near-fatal bicycle accident, Gardot had to shut down for over a year, but when she came back the woman wasn't suffering any fools. The recovery process demanded total devotion. The way the singer stayed in a jazzish mode but never tried to be just a jazz singer showed that devotion was well-spent, and with uber producer Larry Klein the new music is as powerful as anything being written and recorded right now. There are fanciful arrangements that live next door to street-level emotions, throwing together an unyielding yin-yang tension throughout the album. When an orchestra complements a singer like this, it feels like the glory days of musicians performing live--pre-synthesizers, pre-Protools, pre-everything--are back on Broadway and all is right with the music business. Add to that one of the most moving closing songs in a long, long time, titled "Once I was Loved," and Melody Gardot's prayer-like lyrics end an unforgettable album: "After the years gone by / what amounts to the years in a life / what have we come to when we reach our final days / if we can surrender then that is enough / just to remember that once, once we were loved / once we were beautiful once we were loved." Amen to that.
Carl Hall, You Don't Know Nothing About Love: The Loma/Atlantic Recordings 1967-1972. Sure, Carl Hall cut some eternal gospel songs in the 1950s, and later acted on Broadway in "Inner City" and "The Wiz," among other plays. And, yes, he appeared in the film "Hair." All admirable credits, but in so many ways his most striking claim to fame is a series of recordings starting in 1967 for Loma and Atlantic Records that, somehow, failed to grab the public's affection, not the least of which, "You Don't Know Nothing About Love," is one of the greatest lost treasures ever. Producer guru Jerry Ragovoy and Carl Hall just plain clicked. There is no other way to put it. The two locked into the ozone from the start, not unlike Ragovoy and Howard Tate did, and Hall's voice soared to the heavens. At heart, Carl Hall is a gospel singer who just happened to find his best footing in secular music. The way he bears down on a verse, letting it heat to the boiling point before soaring off in the heavens shows over and over that Hall is someone who had the divine inside him and dragged it into the recording studio, right up there with Aretha Franklin, Irma Thomas and O.V. Wright. The fact that so few listeners fell under his spell can now be corrected with this collection of singles and previously unissued tracks by one of soul music's elite. Unbelievable.
Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free. Maybe the fifth time is the charm, because that's the number of solo albums Jason Isbell has released. Prior to flying solo, of course, Isbell was a valued member of Southern barnbusters the Drive-By Truckers, and always held up his end of the stage just fine. But the man had poetry in him, and had to chase the words the right way to set it free. Everything comes together like destiny on the new release, as Isbell writes the kind of songs that put him in the territory of Billy Joe Shaver, Kris Kristofferson and, sometimes, even Townes Van Zandt. It's like he's expanded his view from a small and comfortable place into the vastness of the whole country. Songs like "24 Frames" and "The Life You Chose" don't come around very often, but boy when they do the bells ring and birds sing with a feeling of fate. Jason Isbell's voice has also become something of a wonder; he captures that space where all things seem possible, and even when melancholy and lost love hold sway, there is always a ring to the way the man sings that offers a healthy helping of hope. In a year full of pretty amazing releases so far, 2015 is stacking up as a stellar time for music that will be around for years to come. It often happens that new music movements start at the mid-decade point, like '55 for Elvis and rock & roll, '65 for psychedelic rock, '75 for punk and new wave, etc. Here's hoping it's true in '15, and pretty soon all hell will break loose with mind-blowing sounds.
Eleni Mandell, Dark Lights Up. This fine, fine singer is an MVP on the Los Angeles music scene, and has been for years. She's made all kinds of engaging albums and is a card-carrying member of the Living Sisters, among many pursuits. For her tenth solo release, Eleni Mandell received divine inspiration at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, but of course is way too much an individualist not to bend those lessons into something entirely her own. What she walked away with is a profound respect for musical simplicity, especially in the songs and sound of Roger Miller. To her credit, these new recordings are simple while never simplistic, and in there lies the real accomplishment. Mandell has an endearingly skewed view of life, one that includes staying true to the true joys of discovery, community, small pleasures and, above all, an openness to love. That personal warmth, for her twins as well as well as humankind in general, is the landmark vibration of all these new songs, from "I'm Old Fashioned" to "Magic Pair of Shoes" to "Butter Blonde and Chocolate Brown." Over the course of a dozen songs, Eleni Mandell brings back the glory of a stylish period that, in the end, remains timeless.
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats. Scrape off the frou-frou that weighs down so much of modern music, then take away all the studio trickination threatening to drown true feeling. In a perfect world what would still endure would be Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats. That could be because Rateliff's voice is certified working-class soul. There is nothing extraneous or overdeveloped with the way the big man sings. He just closes his eyes and lets it fly. When he's deep in a song, a lasting one like originals "Howling at Nothing," "Wasting Time" or "S.O.B.," this is a singer truly for the ages. He cuts across stylistic lines like someone using a baseball bat on a fly, that is to say with ultimate ease, and comes out the other side full of illuminating light and joyous jubilation. Ecstatic music like this erases the big dark clouds that blow hard through life, and in their place spreads a sky full of sunshine and unlimited possibilities. It is rhythm & blues-based, surely, but knows way better than to be shackled by a sound from the past. Instead, it kicks down the doors, dropkicks expectations across the dance floor and offers a way to the other side of the river. Nathaniel Rateliff is not a newcomer, but he does sound reborn and rejuvenated, utterly imbued with the spirit in the sky to take his followers to the other side. And the song "I'd Be Waiting" is no empty promise. Rateliff is for real. Take his hand for a dance to the hallelujah land.
Daniel Romano, If I've Only One Time Askin'. There is a semi-secret support group formed a few years ago called Americana Anonymous, brought to life by those who have reached the tipping point for listening to that burgeoning genre. No offense to the music itself, but there does come a time when enough is enough. Fortunately, every now and then someone comes to ground that defies the odds and brings an irresistible allure to a crowded field. Daniel Romano is that person. A Canadian who put in his time in punk and rock bands, Romano is smart enough to zero in on the heartbreak-heavy ethos of George, Merle, Willie, Waylon and the boys, but in a way that doesn't ape the artists themselves. Instead, the singer-songwriter opens up classic-sound songs with an airy atmosphere that hits hard but is never heavy-handed. Great country music has always relied on staying away from the stressed-out speed of rock & roll, and no better proof can be offered than Romano's cover of the little-heard George Jones cover "Learning to Do Without Me." This two-hankie winner comes along once every few years to totally nail what makes country music remain so lasting. So viva Americana, and long live Daniel Romano, and grant us the power to know the difference.
Songhoy Blues, Music in Exile. It's not that far in spirit from the south side of Chicago to the inner city of Bamako in Mali. Inside the thin walls of those nightclubs there is an explosion of sound as musicians try to capture the pain and passion of life on the edge. There is no financial safety net for those who tread these boards. Every day is a struggle, and the only insulation from impending ruin lies in the music they make. For Ali Toure, Garba Toure, Oumar Toure and Nathanael Dembele, their band Songhoy Blues is a run at immortality. Among the wearying religious wars, political mayhem and outright poverty of modern Africa, there's not much to hold onto. Still, once their guitars and drums are in place, these four men throw down for the magic. The notes spiral together, built for their trancelike qualities, while the vocals are full of ancient wisdom and modern insights. Check these song titles: "Soubour," "Irganda," Al Hassidi Terei" and Sekou Oumarou." Even in another language, it's immediately clear these are songs that delve deep inside the soul, struggling to express the existence of 21st century blues, no matter where home is. Writer Andy Morgan's incredibly moving liner notes take the listener deep inside what life is like for a band that may never be seen but most definitely should be heard. Immediately. While the world spirals dangerously close to unending wars and senseless cruelty, Songhoy Blues point the way to a better place. And if that's not what the blues has always done, then color this time gone.