Kristin Andreassen, Gondolier. Beginning the year with an inspired singer-songwriter who, among many flights of fancy, wishes her childhood pet dog had been a horse, seems like a good way to get the party started. Kristin Andreassen’s first onstage experiences may have been as a professional clogger in Annapolis, Maryland, but it was clear from the start that singing was going to be her life’s pursuit. She joined the Uncle Earl group and then Sometimes Why, which also featured Aoife O’Donovan and Ruth Ungar.
Like most artists, Andreassen was meant to find her own path, so on Gondolier she’s mixed up the outside and the inside, both physically and psychologically, and created an intriguing blend of a young woman who sounds like she’s lived a life of imagination way beyond her years. Maybe that’s why the Prairie Home Companion radio show has become a second home, and so many stellar musicians signed on to appear on Andreassen’s new album. At the start of any year, it’s always a challenge to pick a handful of artists who could break out of the musical pack to make a big impact. This deeply soulful artist is easily one of those. Kristin Andreassen has set Brooklyn and a few other selected locales on fire. Expect that to spread fast as Gondolier departs the dock for points north, south, east and west.
Anonymous 4 with Bruce Molsky, 1865: Songs of Hope and Home from the American Civil War. Most likely a collection especially for those with a soft spot for Civil War songs played with a soaring truthfulness, Anonymous 4 have had a storied career of zeroing in on certain eras and then exploring that period with unerring care. This time they’ve added multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Bruce Molsky to add many new colors to the quartet’s loving take on songs like “Hard Times Come Again No More” and “Abide with Me.”
Whether these versions are a capella or include Molsky’s banjo, fiddle or guitar, this album is like an exploration into a time 150 years ago when the United States was torn apart from stem to stern, and no one was sure then how it would be put back together—or if it even should. Anonymous 4 take no sides, and instead discover their own road to freedom. Tours depart hourly.
Glenn Allan Britain, Echoes of My Dreams. This is country music made for barroom brawls and honky tonk masquerades. The lessons Glenn Allan Britain learned weren’t out of a book, and they definitely weren’t taught in a classroom. Instead, these songs seem like they originated in ruminations on life-changing mistakes and daydreaming matinees. Britain is no stranger to nightclub stages, and comes across as someone who knows his way around the working life. But he also is a man who takes his lyrics seriously, and these ten songs will likely stand up long after some of his fans can. "Rolling Toward Heaven” would do any serious songwriter proud, so look for it soon coming to a radio station or film soundtrack nearby.
The secret weapon in all this is producer Pete Anderson, someone who made his name with Dwight Yoakam’s door-busting albums who’s gone on to be the go-to guy for a variety of musical styles. Anderson knows exactly how to arrange Britain’s songs, amplifying the impact while deepening the emotions. It’s all here: rowdy rockers, country weepers and a few tracks which could be classics someday. Dreamland dead ahead.
Elana James, Black Beauty. For the woman who is one of the cornerstones of Hot Club of Cowtown to jump off the deep end of moody bohemia and musical exploration is music to the ears of Elana James’ many followers. Right on time to boot. She is one of the youngest members inducted into the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame. By taking that talent and putting it into the mix on songs by the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan (whose band James was a member of in 2005), the Hollies and Woody Guthrie, as well as her appealing originals, she becomes a much-needed detour on the Americana highway. It would be a mistake to expect any less from someone who went from Prairie Village, Kansas to graduating cum laude with a degree in Comparative Religion from Barnard College.
The way that Elana James balances her rural background with big city smarts for a rich and surprising sound is the real beauty of Black Beauty. Both influences are pervasive throughout each song, but their blend turns everything into a personal glimpse of what assimilation can be. There’s even a song that features a word-for-word final letter home to his wife from US Staff Sgt. Juan Campos, who died in Iraq in 2007. There hasn’t been anything quite like this before, and in putting it to music Elana James has shown the world a glimpse into eternal love. Forever.
Jorma Kaukonen, Ain’t In No Hurry. There’s no way a man who was the lead guitarist in Jefferson Airplane ever needs to be in a hurry. He’s done it, from pioneering early psychedelic music in the Haight-Ashbury to tearing down the walls with a revolutionary sound right up to Woodstock. He then continued to thrill with the duo Hot Tuna with Airplane bassist Jack Casady the past 45 years. Jorma Kaukonen has done it all, and it’s no surprise he’s turned his eyes and ears to the early folk music that first captivated him.
But there’s no way he’s going traditional, so whether he’s performing songs by Jimmy Cox, A.P. Carter, Woody Guthrie, Thomas A. Dorsey or touching new originals like the breathtaking “Seasons in the Field,” Kaukonen has a distinct ability to cast all his music in a shimmering glow, one likely learned on the edge of LSD waves but thankfully transferred to real life. There are very few musicians from the class of ’65 in San Francisco that still pull these dreambeams down from the sky and are able to put them into song. Jorma Kaukonen took the express bus to the 13th floor a long time ago, and through sheer spirit and hard work has stayed there. Producer Larry Campbell is the perfect choice to help him keep shining. Owsley-approved.
Paul Kelly, The Merri Soul Sessions. Australian singer Paul Kelly, not to be confused with the American ’70s soul maestro of the same name, has been thinking outside the music business box for several years, and isn’t afraid to do things his way. After a recent pair of sturdy solo albums, he now returns with a high-water mark of collaborations with several stunning female singers. Kelly assembled a funkified studio band dubbed the Merri Souls, and then invited the ladies in to show how strong such a combo could be.
Clairy Browne burns the whole house down on “Keep on Coming Back for More” and “Where Were You When I Needed You,” while Linda Bull is right behind her on “Smells Like Rain.” And then there’s Kelly himself fronting the group on “Righteous Woman” and “Thank You,” showing why when it comes to Australian singer-songwriters, he might just be the very best there is. That’s just for starters. By album’s end on the gospel send-off “Hasn’t It Rained,” it feels like Down Under is starting to sound like Up Above, and both Kelly and the Merri Souls are getting ready to light out for the other side. Naturally, they’re ready to take listeners with them.
The Jack Kerowax, Kerowax. When fine minds think alike, it’s usually only a matter of time before they get together and try to start a little trouble. Dallas-Fort Worth bandleader Johnny Beauford wanted to make a solo album, so began casting the net for compadres who would fit. The newly-minted assemblage started playing a weekly gig in Dallas, and the next thing anyone realized was that the Jack Kerowax was a band. Thank goodness for that, too, because the fresh aggregation has an appealingly strange way of roping together influences ranging from Lou Reed to real country, without ever sounding as preposterous as it looks in print.
Maybe because Beauford is such a strong singer or possibly because the group chemistry is right on the money, but the Jack Kerowax zero in on the basic structure of pop songs, run them through the filter of Texas musical influences, and end up with a swaggering but always under-control result. There is no telling if writer Jack Kerouac would approve, but then again, the literary American giant almost always threw down on the side of life-force chaos. For sure Sal Paradise is listening. Go!
James McMurtry, Complicated Game. It’s been six years since James McMurtry released a solo album, and it’s abundantly clear he’s been doing a lot of thinking in the interim. He’s likely taken stock of where his music and career are, and maybe where he wants to go. By enlisting the aid of producers C.C. Adcock and Mike Napolitano, the singer-songwriter is steering for the less-is-more side of the road, to fairly chilling effect. McMurtry has always been about lyrics, and approaching songs as a tool to tell a story and hit the center of the heart.
Complicated Game isn’t complicated, nor is it a game. What it is is a straight-ahead study in how hard life can be, no matter what the past might predict, and where some sunshine can be found. Songs like “How’m I Gonna Find You Now,” “You Got to Me” and “Forgotten Coast” capture the forlornness of life better than anyone singing right now, and with the backing band stripped down to their briefs, there’s no worry about the music overwhelming what James McMurtry is trying to share. Any doubts about that are put to bed on the last song, “Cutter.” Yes, it’s about those who cut themselves. The rest has to be heard. Blood runs true, and needless to say, the words aren’t likely to end up on a Hallmark card. Mercy.
Marcella & Her Lovers, The Bronze Age. How does the daughter of zydeco guru Terrance Simien make her own mark on the world? There’s nothing wrong with going to art college in Memphis after growing up in Lafayette, Louisiana, and jumping into the thick musical vibration of Bluff City. Marcella Simien heard it all as a youngster, no doubt, and once she double-downed with the Memphis sound, she found a totally striking new attack on Southern soul.
Even better, she found a handful of players in Memphis that knew exactly the sonics to put with her style. It makes for one of the best new soul records of recent years, and even if the release is only a five-song EP, there is such an overwhelming surge of emotional realness it doesn’t matter. Then, just to show they know their way around history, Marcella & Her Lovers zero in on Billy Bland’s classic “My Heart’s on Fire.” The heavens are smiling on them all.
Various Artists, The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles, Volume 2: 1968-1971. When Stax records started in the early ‘60s, America was turning the corner on so many things, not the least of which was the Civil Rights movement. In several ways, the black music coming out of Memphis helped build a bridge to bring the races together. How could a people who commonly loved Carla Thomas, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and so many others be at total odds with each other? The good news is they couldn’t, so a bond was forged. And the more years that went by and incredible songs recorded, many old social conventions went by the wayside and new ones were created.
These nine discs are a mind-blowing tour of everything released by Stax and its sister label Volt during a four year period. It was the years when Stax had severed its relationship with Atlantic Records and declared its total independence, no doubt a heady time down on McLemore Avenue in Memphis. From Eddie Floyd’s “Yum Yum Yum (I Want Some)” to Johnny Taylor’s “Standing in for Jody” is a dizzying collection of some of the best American music ever recorded, a sound that helped change a nation. Not to mention set fire to dance floors everywhere. Listen and love, and be prepared. Volume 3: 1972-1975 is set for lift-off this spring. All shall overcome.