Howlin Rain, The Russian Wilds. There is something about San Francisco bands that demand freedom, whether it's in their sound, their attitude or just the way they walk down the street. The City by the Bay injects an atmosphere of creative craziness into everything it touches. Thank goodness, too, because American rock and roll needs all the nuttiness it can get. Howlin Rain is right there to provide it.
The band's third album is going for broke. You can hear it in the first song "Self Made Man." The guitars break clear of gravity and positively soar. Ethan Miller's vocals hit the slipstream with them, and give this is a take-no-prisoners moment. The music captures the love vibration of prime Haight Ashbury grooves but sound like it's powered by chainsaw ferociousness. It's a winning combo, one where peace and harmony hit agro and chaos head-on. That unlikely cocktail takes you up and down simultaneously. Far out.
Producer Rick Rubin has pulled Howlin Rain under his wing, no doubt supplying a healthy supply of inner awareness and outer energy. Singer Miller has said he was going for a supremo blend of Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland, Steely Dan's Gaucho, and Bruce Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town on his new album. Shoot high they always say, and this time around San Francisco's finest hit the bullseye. It's always a good lesson never to forget what the Summer of Love once wrought. Psychedelic music totally revolutionized the playbook for American bands in the mid-'60s, and allowed today's musicians the vision to roam wherever their hearts take them. And what we have here is free-range rock at its very finest.
Catherine Russell, Strictly Romancin'. This lady specializes in making music that takes the familiar and turns it into something new. Her voice can go anywhere, and on 14 standards like these it can be like we've never heard them. For some that might be true, because Russell casts a wide net in finding material that isn't overdone. That all center on love, either gone bad or gone good, isn't a surprise. Leave that to the emotional eloquence of how she sings; that is simply something that can't be equaled.
So much of the album harkens to a time when melody reigned supreme, and a vocalist was supported by musicians who were infinitely familiar with the contours of subtle expression. Which is all well and good, but to try and evoke that period now could easily be an exercise in nostalgia, which is something Catherine Russell wants no part of. She may tip her hat to the past, but her interest is in the present and how a song like "I'm in the Mood for Love" or "Romance in the Dark" can live so strong today.
Some of her strengths may run in bloodlines: her father worked for years with Louis Armstrong. Still, genetics can only account for so much. The rest is an ability to get inside a song, no matter what period it's from. Russell's previous albums each celebrated different periods of classic American music. For this absolute valentine of song she goes to Hoagy Carmichael, Lil Green, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitgerald, Mary Lou Williams, and others for inspiration and then turns up the heat all the way. Feel the warmth and bask in the glow.
Karen Dalton, 1966. Some people are not meant for the spotlight. Even while they have voices of angels or souls of graceful beauty, the human experience somehow eludes them. With singers this can be a definite career killer, not to mention a stumbling block to staying alive. For Karen Dalton, she struggled with that shyness her whole life. After becoming a pivotal part of the Greenwich Village folk renaissance in the early '60s, she pretty much disappeared into the woodwork. There were two albums, one in 1969 and the other in 1971, but they felt like postcards sent from afar. Dalton was soon nowhere to be found.
It turns out the woman's favorite place to play was in friends' kitchens, away from the stare of strangers. This album, recorded at a cabin in Summerville, Colorado, captures everything that made Karen Dalton such an intriguing voice. For starters, she got then-new songs from pals like Tim Hardin and Fred Neil and totally fashioned them into her own. With a voice that speaks of someone who likely suffered in silence, this is music where we get to peer in on deep secrets. The way Dalton captures hurt is sometimes too much to hear, causing us to look away for fear of finding out so much about her. All the greats have this, from Hank Williams to Townes Van Zandt, but to find out now about Karen Dalton feels like we missed her greatness.
With only a guitar or banjo, or sometimes joined by another player, folk music like this sounds completely fresh. Even better, it's not like it's been preserved in amber or pressed between the pages of an old book. Rather it's alive and breathing, sharing the passion of this woman's quiet fire. Karen Dalton struggled with life almost right from the start, trying to find peace in drugs and alcohol. Bob Dylan once said she sang like Billie Holiday and played guitar like Jimmy Reed, and that's about as high a compliment as a human can get. When she died of complications from AIDs in 1993, the world had forgotten about her. Luckily, music fanatics like those at the Delmore Recording Society who found this amazing tape have not. Nor should we.