Cassandra Wilson (Ojah Media Group)
It's rare that a band reboots like this after a super successful debut album, but it's something to admire. Alabama Shakes are in it for all the right reasons, and here's hoping that Big Brother & the Holding Companyitis—where lead singer-guitarist Howard would shake off the Alabamans—doesn't set in now. These are four musicians who need each other, and sound like they have so many more miles to roam.
Bob Dylan, Shadows in the Night. Why not? If Bob Dylan wanted to do an album of Jimmy Durante outtakes, who are we to say don't do it? But for this collection, the man dips into the American songbook for ten songs Frank Sinatra-associated, or so they say, but really they're just great compositions that beg for someone to keep singing them. Dylan is that someone, and the way his life experience lets him dive into the final lap towards the end is chilling and courageous, all at once. If "Autumn Leaves" doesn't make us all realize what's on the end of the fork, then nothing will. For almost 60 years Bob Dylan has been the trailblazer out front, hacking down the brush and pointing the way forward, both musically and socially, and we've come to count on him in ways we do no other musician. If he's telling us now that the past is our friend, and that old songs mean just as much as his songs then it's something to take to heart. Dylan's voice is Dylan's voice, and there's a world of beauty in each and every note, not to mention the knowledge of a master. He may be posing on the back cover in a white tuxedo with a lady in a low-cut dress and black mask, but Bob Dylan has always had a more than healthy respect for subterfuge and surrealism. Why stop now?
The Lone Bellow, Then Came the Morning. For those who just can't go there with U2, who can't quite throw in all the way with the anthemic attack of so many of their songs, The Lone Bellow could be the worthy alternative. Not that this Brooklyn-dwelling trio sounds anything like the Irishmen; instead it's the absolute belief each band's songs inspire in their followers that turns the trick. The Lone Bellow stay on the rural side of the sonic fence for a basic sound, but somehow manage to blow up their music into something quite majestic. It's not sleight-of-hand, but there is some wild magic in how they come on so strong. Part of that might just be the sheer brilliance of what they write, whether it's on "Take My Love" or "Watch Over Us," or it could be what happens when three become one. Either way, the Lone Bellow write their name on the wall and stand proud now and forever. Wow.
Shelby Lynne, I Can't Imagine. When someone reaches that fork in the road when the next choice could mean the difference for so many things, everything comes into focus. Today, after a long and wild ride, Shelby Lynne chose the high road and went to Maurice, Louisiana to make the kind of album that comes once or twice in life. She sounds like she's come all the way home, singing with a relaxed intensity that must be heard to be believed. Needless to say, her songs, mostly written by herself but some co-writes with Ron Sexsmith or Pete Donnelly, allow her to shine. This is as personal as modern music gets, sometimes even causing the listener to look away for fear of seeing too much. But isn't that what music is for, and isn't Shelby Lynne an artist for the ages that goes all the way? The answers are right here.
J.D. McPherson, Let the Good Times Roll. For someone who appears to be mining the rootsy vein of Americana music real strong, don't be deceived. J.D. McPherson has much, much bigger targets for his whiplash rockers and heart-busting ballads. This is a man with poetry in him, and he isn't afraid of sharing it. Add to that the kind of revved-up musical accompaniment that the Tennessee Three used to give Johnny Cash, and there won't be any stopping this Oklahoman. He's careening around the country playing places large and small, and leaves listeners asking in his wake, "Who was that wild man?" That's because McPherson knows that he's only as great as his next songs, and takes the time and talent to make each one all it can be. It's almost magical how complex such a sound can really be, and with co-producer Mark Neill they've hit the mama lode. Start with "Head Over Heels," and strap the seat belt tight.
Graham Parker & the Rumour, Mystery Glue. Is it possible to make a comeback and be as great the second time around? Probably not. Still, hope springs eternal and in the case of Brits Graham Parker & the Rumour, they get close enough that it's time to bang the gong and sing a song. Their first few albums in the late '70s haven't been equaled by anyone, and Parker himself has gone on to an entirely admirable run. Still, it's with the Rumour that firecrackers go off, and fortunately that's true once again. There are songs on the new album that would make it onto their best-of collection, should one ever be done, and hit that same spot of melancholic optimism very few rockers have ever bettered. Graham Parker understood love, and knew how to write about it, but could then turn right around and wrap his arms around heartbreak with a bull's-eye aim. To hear him and Bob Andrews, Martin Belmont, Brinsley Schwarz, Andrew Bodnar, and Steve Goulding (say those names long and loud) swing from the ceiling again is to know that, yes, someone up above is looking after us all. Hooray.
Boz Scaggs, A Fool To Care. A true blue music lover would have to be a certified fool not to care about Boz Scaggs' newest journey through American music. No matter what period of his career the Texas-raised singer-songwriter is traveling through, there is always an assured blue-eyed soul slant on everything he does. This time 'round he goes for the undeniably rich backwater of singers like Joe Barry, Al Green, Li'l Millet, Huey "Piano" Smith, the Impressions and others, and so assuredly makes their songs his own it's like some sort of alchemy. One of Scaggs' secrets is restraint. He never overdoes anything. And the other is tension. He sometimes sounds like he's up on an emotional tightrope, reaching for that other side of abandon through all of love's travails. In the end, just call it class and enjoy one of the great careers in music, still in the midst of a third act as thrilling as it is dependable. Count on it.
Shinyribs, Okra Candy. How to describe a large Texan who for years led one of the Lone Star state's groovingest bands the Gourds? All things must end, and now Shinyribs (yep, that's his handle) takes out on the solo quest and hits pay dirt right away. Imagine The Band crossbred with a Galveston chain gang, or maybe Sir Doug Sahm slowed down a notch and filled with flour tortillas and that gets close to Shinyribs worldview. No one is using the multi-cultural musical Cuisinart with quite the dexterity this man is, and it's a mad joy for all Gourdheads they don't have to go cold turkey anytime soon. Shinyribs is providing the stone soul picnic for the foreseeable future, and any singer who can swing from "Donut Taco Palace" to "Fees Like Rain," that is to say sashays from a food shack to an existential meltdown without missing a step is someone after our very hearts. Make that two glazed and let's call it a day.
Cassandra Wilson, Coming Forth by Day. It might be better to listen to this album without even thinking about Billie Holiday, because it is so much its own being that the phrase "tribute" is better left unsaid. No jazz singer goes where Cassandra Wilson does, and the way she transforms Lady Day's set list is brand new. Having producer Nick Launay, long associated with Nick Cave, and some of Cave's Bad Seeds on board doesn't hurt and hitting reset, but really it remains Wilson's show and she shines right through. Turning "Crazy He Calls Me" and "Good Morning Heartache" on their head takes vision, and there is no lack of that here. On a dozen songs Cassandra Wilson turns Holiday's 100th birthday into cause for celebration that the spirit of jazz stays one of constant renewal, and she is one unafraid woman to lead that charge. Being the artist she is, Wilson saves the album's final slot for a new original, "Last Song (For Lester)," a haunting nod to both Holiday and her partner saxophonist Lester Young. It feels like sunset over New York's Hudson River, when the orange glow is fighting off the dark. As the sun eventually sinks, and Wilson walks into the American night.
Dwight Yoakam, Second Hand Heart. How can an artist keep getting better and better? It's definitely not always the case, but Dwight Yoakam, after busting loose from the Los Angeles herd in 1985, has made the album of his life. But even that doesn't mean he won't top himself next time. There is such a deep visionary vein that runs through all Yoakam's songs that they shimmer and shake all the way through. Plus, he's zeroed back in on his mega-booster version of the Bakersfield sound in such a way that it has become all Yoakam's own. He's 30 years into a career that is veering right up there with those of Haggard, Owens, Wynette, Jones, and anyone else in that stratosphere. He's always been someone who takes his mission seriously, and that is to make country music that can appeal to everyone, but at the end of it all it is everyone's music. This is the sound of a first-hand heart that still feels like it's just getting started.
Ron Nagle, Bad Rice (Reissue). Waiting almost 45 years for an album to come back out, especially one that seemed to disappear almost the day it was released, is always reason for extreme happiness. Considering it's a rock opus of majestic magnitude puts the celebration in outer space. Ron Nagle was a charter member of the Class of 1965 in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury rock crowd; his band the Mystery Trend came and went in a flash, but they were there. On his first solo album he went for it. Produced mostly by noted auteur Jack Nitzsche and featuring musicians like Ry Cooder and Micky Waller, there was never a doubt it would be good. No one, though, was quite prepared for just how good it would be. Nagle has composition skills of the highest order, and coupled with a wickedly astute lyrical eye he got the jugular on first try. Listening today to "61 Clay," "Marijuana Hell," "Frank's Store," and all the other songs is a mind-boggling time trip, one that has never really been equaled.