Murali Coryell, Mr. Senator. Sometimes it starts in the genes. Murali Coryell’s father, guitar legend Larry Coryell, likely supplied some of the innate talent in his son. But that only goes so far, and in this case the younger Coryell took up the cause and brought it all the way home. He starts with a blues-base that never gets entangled in too much orthodoxy, and is sharp enough to carve out its own place in the world. Coryell can play anything, but the way he stays on the soul side of the street speaks to his central core. Looking at some of the non-original songs like Clarence Carter’s “Slip Away,” Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” and Latimore’s “Let’s Straighten It Out” shows a unflappable belief in his own abilities. Otherwise, there would be no point in getting within a mile of this material. Coryell also is smart enough to seek out the best supportive players too, like drummer Ernie Durawa, bassist Tony Levin, guitarist/vocalist Louie Ortega, and saxophonist Bill Evans. That’s what anyone would call a super band no matter where they’re from. In the end, though, on an album like this it all rests on the guitar, because that’s where someone like Murali Coryell is going to make his name. Mr. Senator puts that name up in lights, and as soon as the man’s original songs equal those of his covers is the time when the world will become his.
Creole String Beans, Golden Crown. Let’s be honest: how could anyone not fall in love with a band called Creole String Beans? Even without hearing their earnest love of all things South Louisiana, it’s a no-brainer with a moniker like this that they’re out for fun and frolics no matter what’s happening in the rest of the world. It’s no mistake that New Orleans got called The City That Care Forgot. Luckily, this Crescent City quintet’s music lives up to their name. There is plenty of Decatur Gator dancefloor action, some uptown struts to keep the grease percolating in the heart stream and, just to be safe, some back-o-town bodaciousness to maintain a glide in the stride and purpose in the burpose. Seriously, this is a band for the ages. Those who can cover Smiley Lewis and Lee Dorsey then turn around to write the irresistible “Let the Money Drop” and “Boom Boom” are on the road to world and 13th Ward domination both. So sharpen up the oyster knives, check your spinach and head for the danger zone. Popeye is waiting.
Sophia Johnson, One Year. It makes perfect sense for a Brit to end up playing once a week at the White Horse tavern in Austin, and living there to boot. Why not? Sophia Johnson is without doubt in debt to the music of Texas for much of her inspiration, and once she had worked the boards all over the U.K. it was likely an easy choice to head southwest and go for it. Johnson’s voice has a wide range of emotion, and she can crawl inside originals like “Don’t Call,” “Kitchen Floor,” and “Starting Fires” in a way that a listener would swear she had Lone Star beer in her blood. The woman also has a great ear for outside songs too, like Silas Lowe’s “I’m Moving to Manchaca,” Bob Wills’ “Big Beaver,” and Johnny Mercer’s “I’m an Old Cowhand.” The saving grace of One Year is while there’s a definite slant to an earlier world, there is no slavish devotion to retro-itis. Sophia Johnson has a lot of sass in her slap, and being British this music could well be an ever unfolding exploration of newness. It would be a sound equally at home in South Austin’s Broken Spoke or New York’s Carnegie Hall, which is hopefully where Ms. Johnson will someday end up with red Telecaster blazing, complete with her pianist Earl Poole Ball of Johnny Cash band fame hitting the ivories. Brake drummers unite.
Trudy Lynn, I’ll Sing the Blues for You. When it comes to blues singers in Houston, Trudy Lynn pretty much has a lock on the landscape. She comes straight out of the Fifth Ward neighborhood, once nicknamed “the Bloody Fifth,” and is a survivor of a tumultuous scene that taught the singer what it took to make a name for herself. There aren’t many working singers that started when Lynn did, and on her twelfth solo album she gets right down in the alley from the first song, Big Mama Thornton’s “Alright Baby,” and stays there. Luckily this isn’t one of those spiffed-up blues affairs with too many guest stars or wanky arrangements that lose what made Trudy Lynn so great in the first place. Savvy producer Rock Romano will have none of that. And it could have been recorded live at the Big Easy nightclub as where it was, the Red Shack Recording Studio, with not one unnecessary note on the whole set. Between the woman’s originals and covers of Lowell Fulson, Memphis Minnie, Johnny Copeland, and others, this is working class blues for those who need it to stay alive. Lynn wins again.
Harvey Mandel, Snake Pit. Guitarist Harvey Mandel has always been a guitarist more attuned to the sonic universe than someone who spent all their time with the blues. The fact that his first national notoriety was on Charlie Musselwhite’s burning debut Stand Back! and that Mandel was based in Chicago put him in that axis, and Lord knows he had no problem burning down the blues. Still, the musician could explore any number of worlds, which is exactly what he’s done the past 50 years. Sometimes with Canned Heat, John Mayall, and any number of other aggregations, Harvey “The Snake” Mandel is really a player’s player. Fortunately for fans and newbies alike, Snake Pit lets the guitarist go wherever his heart takes him. There is industrial strength wailing on “Space Monkeys,” galaxy-leaping grooves on “Nightingail,” and even the emotional tribute “Ode to B.B.” Despite some recent health concerns, Harvey Mandel fears no one, and with some young blood backing musicians has made one of the very best albums of a long and loving career. Mandel’s the man.
Willie Nelson, For the Good Times: A Tribute to Ray Price. One of American music’s great heroes pays tribute to one of his own: Ray Price. Willie Nelson has always said a reason he started singing was because of how much he loved the sound of Price’s voice. He even played in the man’s band the Cherokee Cowboys for a period, along with Johnny Paycheck, Roger Miller, Johnny Bush, and others. For this moving new set the Red-Headed Stanger is joined by some very seasoned Nashville cats and wizened producer Fred Foster for the kind of sessions that aren’t heard much anymore. There are soaring strings, gorgeous background vocals, and a warmth which feels like everything was recorded beneath a glowing blue light. The whole affair is a magical journey into a period of country music that not only enthralled the masses but spread that sound around the world. These are songs, written by people like Harlan Howard, Bob Wills, Hank Cochran, and even Nelson himself that define the finest this treasured era ever offered. Do not miss.
The Rolling Stones, Blue & Lonesome. It’s big news when the Rolling Stones go back to the future. For a band that started playing the music of Jimmy Reed, Little Walter, and Howlin’ Wolf to end up there again makes supreme sense. This time around, 54 years since their beginning, “England’s Newest Hit Makers” as they were called on their U.S. debut album cover, sound like they’ve grown into the songs that lit their fuse all those years ago. The selections the Stones cover include those by the three names above, as well as Lightnin’ Slim, Magic Sam, Willie Dixon, Eddie Taylor and, at a stab at modernity, a ‘70s classic first recorded by Little Johnny Taylor. It’s a revelation to hear the extreme fire the Brits bring to America’s bedrock sound. Of course, on their very first album they proved without fail they had the same devoted fire for this music; it’s just that now they sound old enough to live inside these blues rather than simply trying them on for size. Sometimes Mick Jagger’s vocals get a little over the top, but he more than makes up for it with some down and dirty blues harp that is one of the great surprises of the sessions. Keith Richards keeps the band bearing down on the business at hand, while Eric Clapton joins his friends on two songs for some extra sizzle. But like the very first days the Rolling Stones stepped onstage, it’s drummer Charlie Watts nailing down the backbeat and throwing in the swing that has always made this combo the best rock and roll band in the world. Still true too.
Don Rich and the Buckaroos, Guitar Pickin’ Man. Behind a great bandleader there’s often a hotshot picker, and nowhere was that more true than in Buck Owens & the Buckaroos, where guitarist-fiddler Don Rich could burn up a stage a million times a night. Owens would feature him even on his albums, and this heart-tugging collection includes 17 songs from those Buck Owens albums and the collection’s unreleased title track from the wildly popular Hee Haw television show. What’s so winning about Don Rich is his subdued swing. He could play guitar probably better than anyone in country music, but was never a show-off about it. Rich just did it, and he sang the same way. He filled a track with instrumental joy, making it seem like no one else had ever done it quite the same way. Even if he never zoomed to the top of the charts or became a star in his own right, those who knew and loved country music during the ‘60s and ‘70s were privy to the fact that Don Rich was among the best. When he died at 33 in a tragic motorcycle accident the music world lost one of its brightest lights. Strike it Rich.
Rumer, This Girl’s in Love: A Bacharach & David Songbook. When a great voice comes along, it’s like the skies open up while the clouds start doing their own peculiar boogie. It’s a time for certified celebration and should never be taken for granted. Rumer has one of those great voices. She’s made several notable albums, and a single, “Aretha,” that will live forever. For her latest release the Pakistani-born, English-bred, and now Arkansas-based (!) woman digs deep into the Burt Bacharach-Hal David catalogue, and it sounds like she’s found a new home. Several of the standards are there, but there’s also a slant on finding some lesser-known nuggets which serves Rumer well. “Balance of Nature,” “One Less Bell to Answer,” “Land of Make Believe”: these are gorgeous songs from the Bacharach-David canon not heard every day. Produced, arranged, and conducted by husband Rob Shirakbari, Rumer is in righteous hands and goes for it. She never oversings, but instead zeroes in on the emotional center of these songs in a way that makes them all her own. With enough strings and horns to fill a petite cruise ship, this feels like an album recorded in the heyday of large studios and union musicians everywhere, which is a wonderful feeling to have. Fortunately, Rumer is right there with them and shows why she is a singer who will no doubt eventually have her big day. Rumer’s the truth.
Neil Young, Peace Trail. Mr. Soul strikes again, this time zeroing in on the cataclysmic changes occurring in America right now. Neil Young has always liked to head off into new territory, spreading the word about what is happening at the same time he points to possibilities most of us haven’t discovered yet. The title song, “Peace Trail,” says it all: Young knows the old ways are done and the new ones coming might be tough but in the end they’ll take everyone where they need to go. Musically these striking songs couldn’t be more revelatory. The band is stripped down to its core: guitar, bassist Paul Bushnell, and Jim Keltner’s evocative drums. And just to make sure no one goes to sleep, there is some extremely effective blasting harmonica to turn the heat up to the breaking point. Even the last song, “My New Robot” (maybe a sequel to Young’s classic ‘70s song “A Man Needs a Maid”), shows the ever-present futuristic glint in the artist’s eye. It’s not hard to tell when Neil Young’s pulse is going through the roof, because his music goes through the roof too. Fortunately, there’s also enough heartfelt musings so he keeps everyone wondering what could possibly come next. No need to worry: as long as artists like Neil Young are paying attention to the machinations of the modern world there’s a good bet his audience will be too. Next stop: 2020.