Beachwood Sparks, The Tarnished Gold. When the sun comes up in Los Angeles, it's like a golden brush takes to the land and turns the blue-black sky at dawn into a glowing sprawl. Endless green lawns and huge trees are everywhere, and a countless array of colorful flowers grace the landscape. Or at least that's what everybody hopes is going to happen. Reality, as always, is a little different, as the car-clogged streets threaten to choke the life out of the city, and the homeless awake to look for new positions to take up their daily begging. As Elvis Costello once sang, "Here we are stuck again in paradise."
The Beachwood Sparks overlook all the things that would normally pull a musician's spirit back to earth. Instead, the basic quartet of the band are joined by friends galore to make a musical feast for anyone with the openness to hear. There are plenty of roots in groups like the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, but it doesn't stop there. The Sparks drift off into more esoteric psychedelia and go where few so-called country rockers dare to tread, even into dreamy Jimi Hendrix mindscapes where the psychic waterfalls drip like candles on the moon and the Spanish chillbumper "No Queremos Oro." There is no holding this bunch back.
It might be noted the band took their time making this new release, waiting a full decade between albums. Sometimes it just takes that long to let the soul fill up with experience before being ready to share it with the world. Fortunately, it was worth the wait, because even if The Tarnished Gold might not blow down the doors, it sure sets the world to shimmering. And that really is worth its weight in gold.
Billy Joe Shaver, Live at Billy Bob's Texas. When it comes to outlaws, it's common knowledge Billy Bob Shaver is the one who out-outlawed the outlaws. There were a few years in the mid-'70s when the doors were closed on this wild man, and he spent time howling at the moon on his own. That's okay too, because he cashed his songwriting checks and continued to go to the well of inspiration that included everything illegal he could find. When his limit was eventually reached, the Texan came up with "Old Chunk of Coal," which John Anderson recorded and saved Shaver's bacon for sure.
On this new 20-song live album, recorded last September at the self-proclaimed world's biggest honky tonk, Billy Joe Shaver sounds all fired up and ready to do some damage. His songs have always walked the wild side of life, while at the same they can be heartbreakingly beautiful. He has taken on the twisted-Christian approach, where he tends to turn over to the Big Guy all the vagaries of existence and, naturally, seek solace when something like shooting someone in a barroom dispute rears its ugly head. Shaver walked on that charge, by the way, claiming self-defense. When last call comes, he still might be the one yelling "no" when they turn up the bar lights but stays semi-lovable to the end.
For someone who never quite made it to the top of the Nashville pack on his own, there aren't many songwriters with more cred than this man. What's interesting is how he remains the best voice for his own songs, whether they're classics like "Honky Tonk Heroes" and "Old Five and Dimers" or newer originals whose words deserve to be carved on big buildings like "Live Forever" and "You Asked Me To." When Billy Joe Shaver's only son died a lot of people thought that would be the end of the father. Exactly the opposite happened, and this rodeo veteran who lost part of two fingers in a cotton gin accident proved he was just getting started. To prove the point there's a DVD included that shows the Shaver in full action, a definite sight for Lone Star state eyes.
Various Artists, Behind Closed Doors: Where Country Meets Soul. When it's time to go all the way downtown and search for the sweet spot where soul music bumps up against country, this new 23-song collection is the motherlode. Some of the great singers of all time, people like James Carr, Candi Staton, Percy Sledge, and Esther Phillips are featured on songs first known as country. It shows in a heartbeat just how close the line is between blacks and whites where the working class is concerned. Both are trying to stay afloat and keep their eyes on the prize, no matter what their music might get called.
Solomon Burke singing "He'll Have to Go" is one for the ages, as is Bettye Swann pouring out her soul on "Don't Touch Me." Every recording reaches those heights, and it's hard not to swoon near the end of the album when something like Joe Tex's "Skip a Rope" threatens to turn even the hard-hearted into a pool of king tears. Emotional devastation knows no color, which is exactly the point artists like this have been making since the start.
If would be an intriguing prospect if a label were to assemble a batch of country singers doing soul songs, but for whatever reasons—including some '60s racial boundaries that didn't stretch both ways—there just aren't that many examples of, say, George Jones doing "Let a Man Be a Man (and a Woman Be a Woman)" or Dolly Parton singing "Tell Mama." What a missed opportunity, maybe, but at least we have something like this stellar compilation to discover what a harmonious world there is right within our grasp when musicians ride the freedom train to the end of the line.