Jim James, Regions of Light and Sounds of God. Good vibes are hard to find, much less define. Just try stumbling around the campfire hoping to hit the twilight zone. But for those still seeking a higher ground and all the fine sounds that go along with it, Jim James has an answer. His day job might be My Morning Jacket, but when the purple waves roll in and the sunshine turns electric, James looks into the abyss and comes back holding a golden staff. He's obviously got poetry in him, and beyond that has a voice from the honey zone which allows him to approach the other side of the spirit world without ever losing control. Southerners somehow go deep like that naturally and manage to pull it off with endless grace, including the fact that James plays all the instruments outside of strings and drums on this solo album. Opener "Daylight Come Daylight Go" sets up the battle for the soul with a clarity only slightly covered by gauze, and James spends the next eight songs seeking the promised land. At the end, "God's Love" carries everything home, making the connection to love beyond all doubt—fiber optics be damned. The singer finds the mountaintop glow, turns himself towards the light and pronounces The Word: "In peace we're alive...our love has no equal...in your eyes and mine...God's love we deliver." Amen to that all day long.
Bell Gardens, Full Sundown Assembly. Sometimes it's all about the mystery. Rather than endlessly pursue information and past statistics, music is often meant to just wash over you, leaving details to another day. There is no better band right now than Bell Gardens to offer that righteous semi-enigma. The brainchild of Brian McBride (from Stars of the Lid) and Kenneth James Gibson (aka apendics.shuffle among other affiliations), Bell Gardens comes out of the fertile Silverlake-Echo Park sonic space, but would be equally at home in Sedona, Golden Gate Park or up on Mt. Hood. There is a cosmic shudder that flows through the band's music which captures the higher aspirations of the '60s, and often even outdoes them. With six other players, McBride and Gibson have assembled a backyard orchestra that can pull down the expansive colors of the spheres and weave them into songs like "Clinging to the Almost" and "Through the Rain." And lest all this appears to be a wee bit touchy-feely, fear not. Drums find equal footing among violins, violas, cello, trumpet and pedal steel, not to mention sympathetic synths and occasional optigans, so the final firmament of effects blend so harmoniously that Bell Gardens' ride on the interstellar overdrive vehicles of tomorrow also sound right at home on the L.A. freeways of today. Here's hoping they can get off without getting caught or lost.
Merle Haggard, The Complete '60s Capitol Singles. There are cetain albums in any given style that should be required listening. They're like ground zero for understanding the greatness of everything music strives for. In country and western, Merle Haggard not only wrote his own chapter, it's like he printed and bound the book himself too. That's how overwhelming his run of hit singles are, starting in the '60s on Tally Records with "Sing Me a Sad Song." By the time Haggard hooked up with Capitol Records in 1965 with "I'm Gonna Break Every Heart I Can," it sounded like he'd kicked the door open at radio, and was ready to move in and take over the whole house. Haggard had amped up the instrumental attack just enough to sound like he was going to stick up a bank, and his vocals were so heartbreakingly human they are almost too hard to take sometimes. This man's soul was wide open, writing songs that make him the Shakespeare of Bakersfield's honky tonk dance floors and barrooms. It's like Haggard arrived fully formed from a hardscrabble land of hardship, ready to wipe out the competition and leave them lying on the ground. For doubters, consider the '60s string of songs like "Branded Man," "Sing Me Back Home," "I Started Loving You Again," "Mama Tried," "I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am," "Hungry Eyes," "Silver Wings," "Workin' Man Blues" and others. And even if it ended with "Okie from Muskogee" in 1969, well, maybe you had to be there to get the joke. Or not. Either way, during five short years in the midst of incredible social change in America, an ex-convict captivated country music completely, earning a place in the pantheon that lasts to this day. Merle Haggard is an artist's artist, which means that he listens to himself and acts accordingly. Long may he run.