Joseph Arthur, The Ballad of Boogie Christ. How does the best album of 2013 slip into the shadows like Joseph Arthur's stunning set did? He calls his label Lonely Astronaut, so though it might appear he's lost in space, nothing could be further from the truth. He writes the kind of songs that strike so close to the heart the album should come with a trauma kit attached. On these dozen songs it feels like Arthur has tapped into the eternal, struggling with all the complications of modern existence at the same time he fights for romance and wonder. There aren't many artists who ascend to that height right now, which is all the more reason to cherish this one who does. Halfway through when he gets to "I Miss the Zoo," it feels like time is going to stop and there is no way to go on any deeper, but onward Joseph Arthur goes, finding a place where the expansiveness of a life fully lived shines in all its glory. Wow.
Michael Bloomfield, From His Head to His Heart to His Hands. There has never been another young guitar hero who had the true feeling of the blues like Michael Bloomfield did. He started young on the streets of Chicago, and by the time he joined the Paul Butterfield Blues Band on their debut album in 1965, he sounded like he could walk on water. The sophomore release, "East-West," changed everything for rock music and its place in the emerging counterculture. Bloomfield's still scintillating playing on the title song rewrote all the rules for the Bay Area bands and beyond, and they never forgot it. This three-disc collection, produced by fellow Morton Reporter Al Kooper, gathers so many of the guitarist's finest moments, including an instrumental version of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," that it must be heard to be believed. And the DVD documentary helps explain just why Michael Bloomfield came to such greatness, and his heartbreaking slide into oblivion and an early death in 1981. While it's clearly true there will never be another like him, the music collected here brings his greatness alive again. Turn it up.
Joe King Carrasco y El Molino, Rucca. Without missing a downbeat, Joe King Carrasco y El Molino are back with a new album, and it's obvious this is one Tejano conjunto who ate the jalapenos and is on fire to keep rocking. Of course, Carrasco has always been that way — someone who never looks back and rarely looks down as he rushes head-on into whatever lies ahead. Whether he's tearing up East Austin or terrorizing rock clubs down Mexico way, he has an eye for fevered frivolity and an ear for musicians who can play that crazy beat he hears in his head. With Miller "Speedy" Sparks on bass and Ernie "Murphy" Durawa on drums, not to mention a cantina full of special guests, El Molino has retaken the Tex-Mex throne they abandoned 35 years ago. Bueno for that, and everything else the band comes up with as they cruise Mezcal Road with the top down and the volume up. Eh Eh indeed.
Rosanne Cash, The River & the Thread. Greatness comes from a lot of things. Sometimes it's a combination of true grit and genetics, where someone might have gifts passed down from bloodlines, but also has a perseverance that will not be denied. Rosanne Cash's father needs no introduction, but let's not forget just how much work she's done to finally arrive at the very best album of a long career. She has realized what all singer-songwriters aspire to, and that's to capture a moving eloquence that lives right next to writers like Hank Williams, Townes Van Zandt and other towering figures. Cash, with producer and songwriting partner John Leventhal, really is that good now. Songs like "A Feather's Not a Bird," "Modern Blue" and "Money Road" feel like things which will be around forever. Don't be surprised if Cash's crowning achievement ends up Album of the Year come the Grammys next year. Seriously.
Paul Cebar Tomorrow Sound, Fine Rude Thing. For the in crowd starting around Milwaukee and stretching all the way down yonder to New Orleans, Paul Cebar needs no introduction. He's been amalgamating modern versions of age-old musical strains like rhythm and blues, rock, Caribbean calypso and even outright oddities into the Cebar Sound for so long he's surely to be anointed iconness any day now. Paul Cebar marches to the beat of his own inner vibrations, and has been highly effective in carving out enough room to boogaloo just how he wants to. With the newly fashioned Tomorrow Sound, the frontman turns up the musical blender to warp speed and attains an even higher degree of grooviness, believe it or not, melting various influences together like so many outré ingredients. Don't be surprised if someday this man fronts his own congregation in the Church of the Mighty Bop. There is something endlessly intriguing in the way Paul Cebar confronts reality, stretching all the way back to his early band the R&B Cadets, and there is not a chance in hell he'll ever stop. Take the C train immediately.
The Haden Triplets. How's this for a fine surprise to start the year right? Triplets Tanya, Petra and Rachel Haden team with Ry Cooder to record an album of American songs that begin at the way-back days and march right into the future. When music is this good, it doesn't matter what era it evokes, because it becomes all about the present. The three Hadens come from a family of singers and players, and were introduced to the rootsiest of roots right at birth by their grandparents. Their father, jazz bassist extraordinaire Charlie Haden, continued the learning curve until they were ready to fly on their own. Fly they do all over these songs, spurred on by Cooder's always other-worldly guitarisms. Face it — this is a teaming made in musical heaven, and the only oddity is that it hasn't happened earlier. The Hadens have each pursued their own passions before this, but coming together under one microphone feels like the mini-choir has been completed and now they get to soar all the way home. Lift-off guaranteed.
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Give the People What They Want. There's nothing quite like seeing a veteran performer hit their high stride in the second half of life. Sharon Jones is the kind of soul singer that ruled the world in the '60s, and saw their deep groove style get pulverized by disco and then basically put out to dry in the '80s. But in the past decade Sharon Jones has stepped up to let the music masses know that a badass woman is back in town, and she's not going to back down. Beating a rough case of cancer last year, this soulstress returns with an album straight out of the rhythm and blues golden age, proving there is no stopping a good thing. And the Dap-Kings are the perfect band to back her as she struts up Broadway, gathering followers and fans in one of the sharpest sonic parades around. Don't miss it.
Jimbo Mathus & the Tri-State Coalition, Dark Night of the Soul. Music needs a home, a place it feels comfortable so when it appears out of nowhere it can be welcomed in. That's what Jimbo Mathus discovered when he began recording this new album. That home was in Taylor, Mississippi, a microscopic town not far from Oxford, and the Dial Back Sound studio. It's where the former Squirrel Nut Zipper would go to wait on the arrival of another song; it wasn't long before he had 40 of them, and began the process of whittling down the list to 12. Without worrying about their funkiness, Mathus often ended up using the demos for the final version, maybe because they were the ones where the magic shined the brightest. The end result is a somewhat fractured look at a man in the middle of his life looking for the right path forward, and finding that the answer has been in his back pocket all along. The way Southerners roll, it only makes sense that history became Jimbo Mathus' best friend and the album's songs are all pieces of that puzzle. If that appears convoluted, don't forget the source — someone who's worked with Buddy Guy, Elvis Costello, Luther Dickinson, Alvin Youngblood Hart and been nannied by the daughter of Delta bluesman Charley Patton. If that's not a winning coalition, the line stops here.
Doug Paisley, Strong Feelings. Though he may be Canadian, Doug Paisley feels like he's been roaming the back roads of America his entire life. His voice has an aching catch to it that conjures up small towns that are blowing away in the dust, and Paisley's lyrics are written with the acute eye of a quiet drifter. Though it shouldn't be called country, considering the kind of hoo-hah happening in Nashville these days, in a better world it would be played right alongside Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and, yes, Billy Joe Shaver from 1975. Thankfully there isn't a touch of retro in his sound, though. It's more like there is a depth of insight that belongs to a different time. Doug Paisley also goes to great lengths to make sure the playing is as real as his songs, recording in an analog studio in Toronto, and pulling in The Band's Garth Hudson on key tracks along with singer Mary Margaret O'Hara. The first song, "Radio Girl," deserves to be a brand new classic, blasting out of stations sitting in the middle of nowhere. Tune in today.
Photo © 2013 Steven W. Likens
Leo Welch, Sabougla Voices. To get there it takes a road map and a guide. Bruce, Mississippi in Calhoun County is in a hidden pocket, and out of there comes 81-year-old Leo "Bud" Welch. He's been playing blues and gospel music his entire life, but just hadn't been able to get much beyond the ears of his rural neighbors before. Born in 1932 in Sabougla, Mississippi, he spent decades listening to church music, walking that line between God and the secular side of the street with an easy grace. Still, enough was enough and Welch wanted to make a record. Once he got together with the Big Legal Mess label, all systems were go. There is nothing remotely fancy about Leo Welch; he looks his songs square in the eye, and then squeezes off a few lines to set the mood. Once that gets rolling, it's like a swaying ride down an ancient dirt road with the Holy Spirit behind the wheel. Have mercy.