Caitlin Rose, The Stand-In. As the home of country music, Nashville has a way of producing enough singers to populate an entire state, let alone a single city. It can be hard to grab the spotlight there, though, short of scandal and/or other publicity stunts. Caitlin Rose, however, steps out front on The Stand-In as a true star. She began singing in the band Save Macaulay six years ago and has steadily moved toward staking out her own place. This sophomore album turns on the steam and the charm, mixing those two elusive qualities together so seamlessly that sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. That's a very good thing, because it's her alluring naturalness that makes Rose such a force. It doesn't hurt that she's written songs that sound like they're going to last forever.
It's easy to hear when someone has found the ability to move listeners. So much of modern music sounds like it's made as an exercise in songwriting, something that people are doing to learn how to get better. Caitlin's new songs like "No One to Call," "Golden Boy," "When I'm Gone" and the crushing "Pink Champagne" point to someone who knows those days when the sky stays gray, the phone is quiet and everyone is going somewhere with someone else. It's not really sadness, but more an ache in the spirit. Caitlin Rose sings like she's been there more than she'd like to remember. Past that is an uplifting presence that spreads beauty and light wherever it lands. Red roses for all.
Various Artists, The Music Is You: A Tribute to John Denver. Someday in the not too distant future there will probably be tribute albums made for tribute albums. But until then, everything is still fair game, so why not a collection devoted to the songs of unlikely hero John Denver? Sure enough, it turns out underneath the somewhat square Denver persona lived a pretty incredible songwriter, and even if it takes singers like Jim James, Dave Matthews, Brett Dennen, Lucinda Williams and others to bring out the inner groove, well, better late than never. Listening to James soar on "Leaving on a Jet Plane" or Williams kill "This Old Guitar," there are tinges of guilt for never seriously tuning in to John Denver sooner. Add on J Mascis and Sharon Van Etten pulverizing "Prisoners" and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros messing with "Wooden Indian," and it's clear Denver—nee John Deutschendorf—carried plenty of musical weight in his time. Maybe it wasn't his fault for all that Rocky Mountain hoo-hay after all.
Okay, maybe not all of it. And isn't this what tribute albums should be — a chance to re-evaluate an artist's relevance and hopefully find a strong glow in their songs? Mission accomplished on The Music Is You, because the whole range of modern singers take a run at classics like "Rocky Mountain High," "Sunshine on My Shoulders" and "Take Me Home, Country Roads" and come out the other end shining like a rainbow. Next up: "Mr. Entertainment: A Tribute to Engelbert Humperdinck?" Danke schoen, and good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.
Shuggie Otis, Inspiration Information/Wings of Love. On the list of artists who should have gone all the way but for a boatload of reasons never did, Shuggie Otis is one of the headliners. From his earliest days playing with father Johnny Otis in the '60s, this Los Angeleno looked marked for greatness. His two first albums made a dent in opening the door, but didn't quite drop the bomb. 1974's Inspiration Information album was going to do that. Except it didn't. Sure, "Strawberry Letter #23" was a 1977 hit for the Brothers Johnson, and "Aht Uh Mi Hed" has been an underground sizzler for almost 40 years. Shuggie Otis, on the other hand, has struggled to maintain a spot in listener's minds, and depending on which explanation sounds the most real, has veered from basic inactivity to more serious challenges.
Today it looks like Shuggie Otis is ready for another run for the glory. This reissue also includes the bonus album Wings of Love, which features 14 previously unreleased live and studio tracks recorded between 1975 and 2000, his first new music released since '74. Even if it doesn't light any new bonfires, the recordings show a persistent pursuit of making himself heard. The standouts, "Fireball of Love," "Black Belt Sheriff" and "Give Me Something Good," offer hope that Shuggie Otis will continue to write, sing and play guitar with the attack of an originator of the psychedelic soul gumbo that first fried young minds everywhere during the '70s. In 2013, The Big O feels like he's prepared to funk up once again. Take it to the bridge, ya'll.