Christian McNeill & Sea Monster, Everything's Up for Grabs. There are untold musical heroes spread out across the country. They play constantly, building local followings and often wondering why national attention doesn't come their way. In New England there is no one more worthy of grabbing listeners by the collar and shaking their world than Christian McNeill and Sea Monster. For someone who's been lighting Boston up for the past 16 years in various outfits, McNeill really is bad and ready to go nationwide. He grew up in Ireland, and learned the tough ways of the world there as Protestants and Catholics battled it out. When he came to the United States, he was already a veteran and the way he put together Sea Monster shows it. It is a group on fire, and they can stand tall next to any aggregation around. McNeill is a big man with a big voice, someone who refuses to back down from whatever barriers present themselves. His debut solo album (after stints in previous bands Schtum, Hybrasil and Orchestra Morphine) will surely be one of the best releases of 2013. It charges from careening rock on the horn-laden instant classic "If You Need Some (Come and Get Some)" to the emotional workout "You Know I Believe in You." It might be shocking to hear someone this strong and not know where that power has been hiding, but believe that there are reasons Christian McNeill is ready to move to the front of the line right away. Even singer Jesse Dee's star turn on the title song makes perfect sense, and shows McNeill can share the spotlight knowing when it's his turn again on album closer "Southern Cross" all is right in the world. If it's been too long since a modern Van Morrison or, hell, Bruce Springsteen found their way into your heart, here's your man. Right on time, too.
Eric Burdon, 'Til Your River Runs Dry. There is no English singer with more soul than Eric Burdon. Ever. In some ways there's no one even close. What's so wondrous now is how great he still is. The voice might be rougher, but then again Burdon never sang under satin sheets. He's been a tough and tumbler Newcastle lad since the start, zeroing in on titans like John Lee Hooker and Bo Diddley for early inspiration. Even when he cozied up to Sam Cooke songs the Brit still kept it in the alley. On this striking collection of new songs it's obvious the man has stayed in the pudding since straying there all those years ago on visits to Haight-Ashbury in the '60s. Burdon is a man of the world, connected to cosmic causes and down-to-earth concerns, and isn't afraid to write songs about those affairs of the air. He and co-producer Tony Braunagel have rounded up a stellar band who can swing from down home blues to uptown sophistication, all the while letting Eric Burdon strut his stuff. On songs like "Water," "Memorial Day" and "Medicine Man" they create a contemporary take on everything groups like the Animals, Rolling Stones and Yardbirds so ably started a half-century ago. If there was an award for the British Invasion veteran who has kept his courage intact, pin it on Eric Burdon. Listen to "Wait" on this album, and then journey all the way back to "House of the Rising Sun." There is a continuum of greatness there that cannot be denied. Rave on.
Gary Burton Quartet, In Concert. In the mid-'60s jazz was finding its way into new territory as the counterculture was embracing the improvised beauty of that music. Miles Davis and Charles Lloyd were opening the door and young people came flooding in. One of the other early pioneers of extending the popularity of jazz was vibes player Gary Burton. Wisely, his record label knew how to shape the images to reach out to hipsters, and with electric guitarist Larry Coryell making plenty of noise it became an obvious bet for Burton's quartet to build. This live album recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1968—featuring the bandleader on the cover in a fringed suede jacket and way-groovy title lettering—made it seem like the quartet would be headlining the Fillmore Auditorium any moment. It didn't happen too often, maybe because vibes as lead instrument was a little soft for rock listeners used to heavier sonics, or maybe the electronics and percussive assault of Davis's Bitches Brew album grabbed the glory of the fusion mantle. But Gary Burton, so instrumental in coming up with the four-mallet approach on the vibraphone, was most definitely onto something original, and to this day is still active and pursuing his own cutting edge. What he and Coryell, along with bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bobby Moses, fashioned one evening in New York City continues to feel like a beacon to the future, allowing this recent UK reissue to gather that spirit in the night and let it shine.