Bob Dylan, Shadows in the Night. It’s obviously late in the evening when Bob Dylan brings out the Great American Songbook. The moon is full, the stars are shining, and the sky is darker than blue. Still, Dylan zeroes in on some of the greatest ballads ever written, with names like Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Johnny Mercer, and other luminaries among the credits. Even better, they’re off-road standards, if that makes sense, give or take an “Autumn Leaves” and “That Lucky Old Sun.” Most of all Bob Dylan’s voice is the star here, cuddled up close with an incredibly empathetic steel guitar, and the way he connects emotionally to lyrics that wrap themselves around the coming end of a well-lived life is something not to miss.
This isn’t music for sissies, and only someone on the back nine might really be able to feel its depth. But boy, Dylan sure does, and it’s both warming and chilling at the same time. For those who question this musical move by the Big Bard, consider he’s the only one who inhabits the position he’s in, so whatever he does is right for him. Nobody else has done it. Off into the world of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire he goes, pulling down night dreams and letting his band of guitar players and drummer sparingly fill in the open space behind him. To be perfectly Frank (Sinatra) about it — this album comes just in the nick of time, proving that Bob Dylan waits for no one, and like always has the courage to look the other side in the eye, smile and keep on singing.
Steve Earle & The Dukes, Terraplane. Anyone who grows up surrounded by the blues, and then lives a life filled with heartbreak and happiness like Steve Earle has, is bound to eventually make a blues album. Which isn’t to say this is someone trying to jump into the Chicago style of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, or even emulate home staters like Lightnin’ Hopkins or Mance Lipscomb. Rather Steve Earle has found his own blues, those that come out of all the years of searching for solid ground but often slipping right off the edge of the earth. The singer-songwriter has taken all those miles of rough road and found a way to turn them into a way up.
Music like this cannot really be learned. It must be lived, which is just what Steve Earle has done. With band the Dukes and rough and ready Mississippi-born producer R.S. Field, Earle heads for the dark end of the street and finds plenty of light in that darkness. On “Best Lover That I Ever Had,” “The Usual Time,” and, yes, “Go Go Boots are Back,” the San Antonio native zeroes in on what makes his own blues so blue, and nails it to the wall. Playwright August Wilson once wrote, “This be an empty world without the blues.” Steve Earle has just filled it up—again.
Tinsley Ellis, Tough Love. It can’t be easy being a middle-aged blues guitarist, someone who’s seen the epitome of that scene during the ‘60s and early ‘70s, but is so soul-deep in the music there is no other route for the road ahead. Tinsley Ellis is from Atlanta, Georgia, and once he felt the power of blues as a teenager his course was set. It’s a testament to his strong belief in the music that he’s never wavered from that early devotion. Some of his many releases veered into the rock lane, but the blues was always at the bottom of everything Ellis plays. On Tough Love, it sounds like the man has plugged himself directly into the wall and gone for it.
There is such an unrelenting physicality to these new recordings that it’s a bit like being in a boxing ring with a heavyweight champ. The man will just not stop. Even on a ballad like “Give It Away,” Tinsley Ellis pours on the emotions thick and greasy, just the way he likes it. He also sounds like he’s found a new view in how he writes, something that comes with age and, yes, survival. Playing blues is always a long game. Success rates are small and the tribulations high. For artists like Ellis, that’s entirely beside the point. His reward comes in what he’s able to share with listeners, and what his live audiences give back when he’s on the bandstand. Let’s keep it that way.
Red Garland Trio, Swingin’ on the Korner. When it’s time to find a piano player to make the world swing with a little more zip, to hear musicians move together as one in finding the sweet spot of playing, and most importantly, to discover recordings for the very first time that help define how captivating true jazz can be, start with Red Garland’s new two-disc set from 1977. The Texas-born giant was in San Francisco for a week-long run at the famed Keystone Korner, and, luck of lucks, someone recorded it. During the ‘50s and ‘60s Garland was known as an inspiration to other musicians, and whether as a bandleader or a sideman always delivered the magic.
In the ‘70s, he pretty much went home to Dallas and stayed there except for occasional forays east and west. Garland moved into the Recovery Room club, and mesmerized all who were fortunate enough to find him. So this San Francisco show was a bit of an occasion, and with Philly Joe Jones on drums and Leroy Vinnegar on bass, the trio went through the roof. From the very first song, Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale,” it’s abundantly clear the three came to play. The next 15 songs just keep getting better and better, and no matter if they’re fast, slow or in-between, every one is a gem. Add to that one of the best collections of essays on a reissue in recent memory, and Swingin’ on the Korner becomes a must-have for music fans of all persuasions. It won’t come again.
Diana Krall, Wallflower. Here comes a covers album that on paper may have seemed a bit predictable, but on disc is a thriller and a chiller. Start with the artists covered: Mamas & Papas, Eagles (twice), Leon Russell, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Jim Croce, 10cc, Randy Newman and Crowded House — nothing outside the lines, but a crowd that includes some of the best songwriters of the past 50 years. And producer David Foster totally knows how to play to Diana Krall’s strengths, which is a voice drenched in tear-stained seduction.
Still, when it’s all said and sung, this is Krall’s show all the way, and she burrows deep into the songs to make them her own. No small feat considering some of the music’s heritage, but do it she does. To hear her on Dylan’s “Wallflower,” first done (even before Dylan) by Doug Sahm on his 1971 Atlantic Records debut, is to understand what a supremely talented singer this woman is. She makes it her own, and along with Blake Mills’ guitar reinvents the song completely. There are other instances of such majesty all through the album, and while picking duet partners Michael Bublé and Bryan Adams might seem very safe, both work. It’s getting harder and harder to make jazz vocal albums that reach beyond the boundaries, but this is one that is both a surprise and, in some ways, a revelation. Krall space to spare from note one.
The Lone Bellow, Then Came the Morning. Born in Brooklyn, The Lone Bellow is a modern band that takes a whole gaggle of past influences, throws them in a big burlap sack, and shakes them into something brand new. Singer Zach Williams is one of those young artists who sound like they’ve hitched themselves to the sky in finding their voice, and takes off from there. Nothing holds him back, and whether he’s soaring or turned silent, the inner pull never ends. He has the extra chromosome of great buried inside him and it surely comes out.
Bandmates Brian Elmquist and Kanene Donehey Pipkin are of one piece with him, and that’s one of their many secrets. Whether on “Fake Roses,” “Watch Over Us” or “Heaven Don’t Call Me Home,” this is music that could just as easily have been recorded in the basement at Big Pink four decades ago. With savvy producer Aaron Brooking Dessner from the National overseeing the sessions, it would still have sounded this new. If there is one band likely to crack wide open in 2015, let it be The Lone Bellow. The world needs to hear what happens when young people trust themselves and listen to the beating of their own hearts. The cosmos is the limit.
Malawi Mouse Boys, Dirt is Good. Miracles are meant to happen. One listen to the Malawi Mouse Boys and that true fact will never be forgotten. This group of musicians lives in southeast Africa and they earn a living catching mice in the bush, frying them, and then selling them by the side of the road for food. In this world, music has arrived to offer them a glimpse of another life. With a few guitars, drums made from discarded materials, and enough faith to light a huge fire, the Malawi Mouse Boys have not only recorded two albums, but traveled to other countries, leaving home and riding on airplanes for the very first time, to spread their unique musical feelings.
The sound is simplicity personified, with slight but always affecting guitar chords, primitive percussion, and vocals with the kind of deep feeling that comes from the center of the earth. Singing in the Chichewa language, words transcend literal translation and become a soundtrack to the other side. The group shows that all things are possible, and no matter what obstacles history and circumstance build to contain them, there is always a way over those walls. Freedom rings loud and clear.
Ron Nagle, Bad Rice. Some albums seem destined to become buried treasures. For whatever reason, the music is either too advanced or, believe it or not, just too good to be embraced by the masses. In 1970, an oddly enigmatic release titled Bad Rice found its way onto the world’s record store shelves. The artist, Ron Nagle, had been part of early San Francisco band The Mystery Trend, but little was known about him. The back cover of his new solo album showed a seriously demented-looking man who was missing one front tooth. There was no chance for Nagle being mistaken for James Taylor or Van Morrison. But the music inside the album was instantly breathtaking, featuring the kind of songs that are seared on the brain on first listen. Harmonically advanced, lyrically alluring and instrumentally mind-blowing, this was an album for the ages.
Produced mostly by Jack Nitzsche, who called this his favorite album of all he did, with slide guitarist Ry Cooder front and center on several tracks, there was no way for this one to miss. Miss it did, though. In fact, it didn’t even hit the target. It was like there was a vast conspiracy to keep Nagle silent. All these years later, Bad Rice now has its day. Songs like “61 Clay,” “Marijuana Hell,” “Capricorn Queen,” and that soaring majestic classic “Frank’s Store” now shine like the sun on the Golden Gate Bridge. There is an inner pathos on all Nagle’s songs that is so deep and heart-tugging they make Elton John sound like Shecky Greene. They’ve never been equaled, and this reissue captures them all in their sublime glory. The second disc of outtakes, demos and other curiosities is fun, but not really necessary. Finally, Bad Rice is back to save us all—from ourselves.
Pops Staples, Don’t Lose This. When Roebuck “Pops” Staples died in 2000, the world lost a musical and spiritual icon. As leader of the Staple Singers, he and his children had brought gospel music to millions who never would have heard it, and allowed everyone within earshot to be lifted up and, hopefully, healed. This album started as unfinished tapes Pops Staples had done with daughter Mavis in 1998. They were simply too good to be left in a drawer, so Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy took them into his Chicago studio and with help from other musicians, including teenaged son Spencer Tweedy on drums, has given the world a “new” album by Pops Staples.
Without sounding too upstairs about it, these are messages sent from the beyond, and it feels like fate brought them down to earth for all to enjoy. Pops Staples is someone who had seen everything there was to see on his life journey, and found a remarkable way to put it into song. His guitar playing always possessed a singularly unique element, one that was both rhythmic and tuned into the core of the song, coming from the speakers as a living thing. These last recordings come out as musical sermons in a most groovacious way, and always inspire those open to the spirit in which they’re sent. Mavis Staples is her father’s daughter, and with help from Jeff Tweedy and the other musicians, keeps the circle unbroken here for a little while longer. Bless them all.
Lucinda Williams, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. Double-disc albums can be tricky, especially if the first disc is so strong it crowds out the second. It’s like the big brother who gets all the attention, often leaving number two to sit in the shade on the bench. Last year Lucinda Williams released a new set that knocked listeners for a loop. The lead disc included songs like “Compassion,” featuring words by her poet father Miller Williams, “Burning Bridges,” “East Side of Town,” and several other new classics. So the other disc might have gotten unfortunately overlooked, which is a real shame because it just happens to be one of the very best collections of music the woman has ever done.
There is a looseness to songs like “Big Mess,” “When I Look at the World,” and “Stowaway,” like they were recorded late at night when the spotlights have been turned off and the band and Williams are playing for themselves. It’s as if the listener is allowed to stumble into an all-night dive on the other side of the tracks and be allowed to peek into the wonder of creativity at work. It’s a place where the divine and the devil rub shoulders at the bar and seem to like it, and all the neurons bouncing around the half-dozen bodies on the bandstand converge into one and take serious flight. For those who look to music to send messages from the other side and lead us ever onward, Disc 2 is a natural-born masterpiece, ending with a drop-dead gorgeous cover of J.J. Cale’s “Magnolia.” Hopefully these ten songs will have their day in the sun to spread what it’s like when wonder and Lucinda Williams walk hand-in-hand down the great highway. There’s nothing like it, so miss it only at steep risk to the heart and soul.