Brian Wilson, In the Key of Disney. This is likely to be the best children's album Brian Wilson ever makes, and the good news is that it's for children of all ages. Gathering eleven songs from the entire scope of Walt Disney films is a fine idea indeed for the man whose music has always spoken to the eternal youth in all of us. Plus it takes the weight off Wilson trying to outdo his own past, which at this point is about as likely to happen as Mickey Mouse collaborating with Kanye West on an album of NWA songs.
Brother Brian gets around to classics like "The Bare Necessities" and ""Baby Mine," but also is smart to mix in more recent film songs by Randy Newman and Elton John. And while the former Beach Boys' voice sounds in fine form, he was never really a lead singer. Odd when you think about it, really, which keep these recordings grounded rather than allowing them to soar. In the year 2011, though, it feels mighty fine to have the man making music this good on any level.
There are only a handful of American artists on Brian Wilson's level. He has created some of the greatest musical moments of the past 60 years, and the thought of him in a recording studio now working away like this is a vision of the highest order. Yes, the recent reissue of the original Smile album, finally put in as complete a form as possible, is cause for parades down Hollywood Boulevard right up to the Capitol Records tower on Vine Street.
When Wilson sings "Stay Awake" and "When You Wish Upon a Star" today, the heart melts and goes back to when "In My Room" first came on the radio and the world found out there was a genius in our midst, working away in California to capture what it meant to be alive in the brave new world of the early '60s. The surf was up, and so was Brian Wilson. The best news of all is that this courageous dreamer still is.
Etta James, The Dreamer. Talk about survivors, the story doesn't get any more touching than this. Etta James started recording before she could drive a car, and continues right up to today. Although they are calling this new album her last, there is something so uplifting about the woman that all bets should really be off this is the end. There is such an unrelenting spirit on songs like "Champagne & Wine" and "Misty Blue," it wouldn't be surprising to find out the lady lasts forever.
Like James' first Warner Bros. release in the '70s after years on Chicago's venerable Chess label, there are songs selections here that first might raise the eyebrows but in the end make perfect sense. Back then, it was a devastating cover of Alice Cooper's "Only Women Bleed," while now she tackles Guns 'N Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle." Guess what? Etta James nails it, dipping back into her years ripping and running as a committed dope fiend to make herself right at home in the tough streets of the song: "When you're high you never want to quit or come down" indeed.
As good as James is at singing the music of Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Bobby Bland, Ray Charles and Little Milton, it is on "Cigarettes & Coffee" that time stops and the unequaled soul of the woman tears our hearts in two. The simple story of lovers sitting at home at quarter to three in the morning, probably in little more than their underwear, talking about life and love is almost too much to bear.
There is nowhere to go or anything to do except smoke cigarettes, drink coffee and enjoy each other's company right then. It is the power of now coming to life in a vividness very few singers ever find. Etta James lives there, and has for a very long time. Wish the woman well. There won't be another.
Harold Land, The Fox. There are certain jazz albums that gain a quiet glow about them over the years. As amazing as they might have been on first release, the decades have a way of giving the music a growing stature. Surely Harold Land's 1959 zinger The Fox is one of those. Land was a hard-swinging saxophonist born in Houston, raised in San Diego and relocating to Los Angeles in the early '50s. He joined the Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet in '54 and toured the country with that legendary band. By the time he went home to California the young player was on fire, and ready to show what he had to the world.
The Fox is Harold Land's second solo album, and from the first notes of the title song it feels like the horn player is going for the limit. Any group including other members with names like Elmo (Lewis) and Dupree (Bolton) in it, on piano and trumpet respectively, shows sure signs of intrigue. They don't let down either. Also featured are moody compositions like "Mirror-Mind Rose" and kickers like "Little Chris," all recorded with a fiery burn at their center.
This recent reissue includes the follow-up album Take Aim. The personnel changes but what's most important is Harold Land's saxophone. His improvisational skills were a match for anyone in jazz then, and though Land's quiet demeanor might have made it seem like he was a lesser musician, nothing could be further from the truth.
By the time he linked with vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson in the '60s for a moving series of albums on Blue Note Records, Harold Land's name was good as gold in jazz circles. When he died in 2001, the world lost one of its most inspiring saxophonists. Those that listened knew it too, which with music this strong is what matters most anyway.