Dave and Phil Alvin
Dave and Phil Alvin, Common Ground. Though Alvin brothers Phil and Dave will forever be known for their work in the Blasters, in truth their love of blues goes all the way back to the start of their music listening in Downey, California when they were teenagers. Getting bit by the blues bug inflicts permanent damage, and it's a testament to their devotion that neither Alvin has ever turned back from that. This debut brother collaboration is dedicated to the songs of Big Bill Broonzy, because that's one of the first people they heard when their record collecting obsession started. Of course the album had to be a stunner, but the real surprise is just how stunning it is, begging the question why it took so long to happen?
Phil Alvin is a singer in the school of shouters like Big Joe Turner, but here there is so much subtlety in his voice it's obvious he can sing whatever he wants. As for Dave Alvin, he's also become a vocalist as well as one of the more fiery guitarists alive today. The best news of all is these dozen songs are really a blowing session. Sure, there's a ton of care that went into the arrangements but past all that is a power which cannot be stopped. Don't mess with Downey indeed.
Asylum Street Spankers, The Last Laugh. For a band that formed in 1994 and played their last shows in 2011, it's not surprising they've finally gotten around to releasing those farewell nights as a live album. It's not odd either that the Asylum Street Spankers don't exactly remember playing those shows. Why would they? The Spankers were always one of those bands who shot for the Now and let everything else sort itself out. Their fractured mix of folkie jams, rambunctious barroom struts and every now and then a Tom Waits cover, or something equally interesting, became an institution in Texas and beyond.
Now that the band is getting around to actually getting the last laugh, it makes sense to dig deep and include originals like "Savor Every Day," "Fuck Work," "Ludicrous Heart" and "She Texted Me Goodbye." If you can't laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at? Now that the dust has cleared and these lives tapes have surfaced, it's time to hear again a band that went deeper than Tin Pan Alley all the way to Peter Pan Boulevard: why grow up? Hopefully the Asylum Street Spankers are all still on the avenues spreading smiles and wreaking musical havoc. It's too late to stop now.
Bobby Charles. Imagine if The Band had a lead singer from Louisiana instead of Arkansas' Levon Helm, someone whose voice dripped honey at the same time it carried the weight of the world. Bobby Charles' first solo album from 1972 has that appealing result, and this primo vinyl reissue of Charles' self-titled debut is even better today than it was over 40 years ago. Charles had an early hit with "See You Later, Alligator," and helped write some classic Fats Domino songs like "Walkin' to New Orleans." By the time he got to Woodstock and linked in with Albert Grossman's Bearsville Records, he was a near-legend.
He sings like he's laying in a hammock, and writes songs for the ages. "Small Town Talk," "Grow Too Old," "I'm in a Good Place Now" and especially "Tennessee Blues" have rarely been equaled. For sidemen he cast a wide net, coming up with all the Band members except guitarist Robbie Robertson (who may have been persona au gratin by then with his musical cohorts), Dr. John, Amos Garrett, Ben Keith and a host of others. The musical notes seem to fall from the skies as Bobby Charles exudes his rush-free vision of the good life, and while he'd go on to make other albums, this is sure 'nuff one for the history books.
Lee Fields and The Expressions, Emma Jean. Back roads soul music might seem like a totally endangered species, but don't tell that to Lee Fields. He's been singing this music for 45 years, and from the sound of his latest release has no intention of quitting—or changing. Nor should he. He comes from the chitlin' circuit sound, where the Champales aren't always ice cold but the dance floor is never less than red hot. His influences from artists like Otis Redding, Joe Tex, O.V. Wright and Wilson Pickett come to him the real way, learned by years of listening and watching.
When it was time for Lee Fields to first bust a move, he started recording 45s for indie labels that never heard of an accounting department but gave the singer the chance to show what he's got. That he's continued all these years, even when there were serious detours, puts the man solidly in the hero department. So don't look for Fields and his band the Expressions to get fancy at this late date. Instead, be ready for him to come onstage in a gold lamé blazer with a solid splash of Old Spice, and then get all the way down. These new recordings are the best he's done, and show real imagination in the song department, starting with a heart-tugging cover of J.J. Cale's classic "Magnolia." Live, Lee Fields will burn down a stage as easily as putting on a pair of patent leather loafers. Accept no substitute.
Jim Keller, Heaven Can Wait. Yes, Jim Keller was in Tommy Tutone and co-wrote with Alex Call their biggest hit "867-5309/Jenny." Yes, sometimes a one-hit band gets shoved in a box and never let out, but in reality Tommy Tutone were much more than one hit, and lead singer Tommy Heath was always a very soulful front man. Flash forward a few decades, and Jim Keller comes back with one of the best albums of the year. It's not his first solo release, but it's the one where he pulls everything together and makes a run for it. His own expressive voice has the kind of edge in it that says mess with this man at your own peril, and Keller's songs have their own timeless take on modern life and love.
There are a few which deserve to be current hits right up there with anything Keller wrote, and from the sound of these tracks it's likely his live show could start some trouble too. If blue-eyed soul music always lit your fire, start right here in discovering who has that covered in aces, and help spread the word on what could be one of the most deserving comebacks since, well, the next Tommy Heath solo album. And if a Tommy Tutone reunion happens to happen, here's a vote for a show where they perform their hit-free first album which still feels like an underground classic.
Yvette Landry, Me & T-Coe's Country. More Louisiana mischief as singer-guitarist Yvette Landry takes a couple handfuls of country staples, adds two originals and creates a surprising jaw-dropper with only the accompaniment of pedal steel player Richard Comeaux. It's the utter sparseness of the sound that supplies the magic, along with songs like "Tennessee Waltz," "I Fall to Pieces," "Hey Good Looking" and "Buckets Got a Hole in It." Landry's voice is allowed to take flight with nothing to tie it down to Earth, and she is sharp enough to take advantage of that freedom.
Comeaux is the perfect partner, never going over the top with pedal envy, but rather listening to what the singer needs. Yvette Landry is a revelation here, someone who can call for two hankies and then right away shout out for a shiny dance floor. A bonus lagniappe track of Don and Dewey's "I'm Leaving It Up to You" featuring Roddie Romero and the Hub City All-Stars feels like a heaven-sent belt-polisher, straight outta Beaux Bridge. Time to fry the fish and boil the crabs.
Amy LaVere, Runaway's Diary. Sometimes being somewhat of a drifter supplies the perfect resume to becoming a musician. Amy LaVere, born in Louisiana, moved around a dozen times while she was young until finally settling in Memphis. A few years in Nashville had given her a glimpse into what could be, and then once Bluff City called that was it. LaVere has been making albums there almost a decade, and her latest could well be the breakthrough she has earned. She writes songs with a razor's edge of sensitivity and a keen insight into eternity. Maybe that's because Amy LaVere also supplies the band's heartbeat on acoustic bass, or maybe that is just the way she was born.
Either way, the gig is hers. Producer Luther Dickinson, a fellow Memphian, finally finds the perfect frame on songs like "Rabbit," "Self Made Orphan" and "Where I Lead Me," songs that show a young woman poised on the edge of becoming an American treasure. There is no one writing songs of heartbreak and happiness quite this strong right now, and surely that can't stay a secret forever. Expect Amy LaVere to bust down the doors any day now.
Janiva Magness, Original. Sometimes the hardest things in life are exactly what push artists to new heights. For soul chanteuse Javina Magness, it was the end of a long marriage, the death of eight friends and relatives including her foster mother and a serious neck injury. There were probably moments when Magness wasn't sure she could go on. That's when the going got good and funky. She reached down and did something she'd always avoided, and that was take a hand in writing her own songs. Once that started there was no stopping the woman.
Her voice is full of the spirit that comes with survival against long odds, and her producer Dave Darling and support players zero in on what each song calls for. If Janiva Magness needs a new theme song, let it be "Mountain." It's the kind of anthem for everyone who's gone nine long rounds with life and barely made the tenth, only to surprise even themselves to land a knockout punch and win the fight. That's what this amazing singer-songwriter (yes, songwriter!) does now, proving herself to be the champion her fans have believed her to be all along. Sing it loud and sing it proud.
NRBQ, Brass Tacks. If America were to have a house band, at this point it may as well be NRBQ. They began in 1966 in Terry Adams' Louisville living room, and never looked back. For several decades the lineup was locked-in, but between departures and death NRBQ went through the inevitable changes. Luckily for listeners, they've come out the other side as the eternally irresistible aggregation they were born to be. Keyboardist-singer Adams approaches music like it's a joyous puzzle to put together, and once everything fits the incandescent playground is open for business.
Fellow band members Scott Ligon, Conrad Choucroun and Casey McDonough throw in with Adams so all take part in the songwriting in one way or another so NRBQ's trademark mix of taking pop, rock, jazz, country and a dash of comedy to the woodshed has never sounded better. There's even a tip of the microphone to the timeless Rodgers and Hammerstein original "Getting to Know You." Naturally, NRBQ put their perennially impressive stamp on it so it almost feels like a Beatles/Harry Nilsson lost outtake. This is one band who has always behaved according to their own rules, and isn't about to change. Whew.
Eli Paperboy Reed, Nights Like This. Somebody stoked the fires a bit high for Eli Paperboy Reed's first foray on his new label. No doubt there were visions of radio airplay dancing in their head, but everything is cranked in such a way that Reed's undercurrent of simmering soul gets lost in the translation. That doesn't mean the new album is a total dud, it just takes a small dose of Polident before listening so the false teeth don't fall out. The unfortunate side effect of this rush for the best-selling charts is that the Paperboy's latest has been all but overlooked by his long-time fans.
He's built a word-of-mouth following for years since becoming one of the great young hopes of real soul music on the New England club circuit. And after his years of on-site apprenticeship in Clarksdale, Mississippi it looked like he was headed for the high life. Eli Reed's releases on indie labels generated enough action that he became someone to seriously watch, simply because he had it all. If history is any teacher, he'll probably go back to the drawing board for the follow-up to this one, and burn down the barn with the kind of songs that neutron the monkey nerves. But for now, it's a case of just plain too much monkey business on the production front, and not enough of the Paperboy's good time rhythm and blues moves.