Brian Eno and Karl Hyde
Eno + Hyde, Someday World. Whatever music Brian Eno makes is worth listening to. He lives in an experimental world where everything is possible, and has never met a wall he didn't want to destroy. From Eno's earliest ambient recordings to his production work with Talking Heads, U2, John Cale and so many others, it's like he is a one-man army in the creative sphere. The Englishman's recent collaboration with Karl Hyde almost lives in a song sphere, where the nine tracks are structured around verses, choruses, solos and endings.
Almost. But because Brian Eno will never bow down completely to structure, expect the unexpected. There is enough blurring of the lines that the album, in the end, is another must-have for those who've followed Eno through all his imaginative navigation. Maybe not as out in the ozone as would have been guessed, but isn't that the whole point, to defy the obvious and reap the whirlwind? Brian Eno, with Karl Hyde this time, continues chasing infinity. And baby's still on fire.
Robert Francis & the Night Tide, Heaven. A son of Los Angeles, Robert Francis got his first guitar from Ry Cooder when he was nine years old. A lot has happened in the past 15 years, including recording several albums and touring the world. Who knows — maybe the fourth time is the charm? Francis finally brings all the disparate influences together and turns them into one overwhelming whole on songs like "Something Tells It Not To," "Love is a Chemical," "Take You to the Water" and "Hotter than Our Souls."
The singer-songwriter is sometimes so personal he creeps right up to the edge of being too much. But then Francis' soul kicks in and he flies right over all obstacles and makes songs that seem indispensable. He is one of the few artists since the high days of Laurel Canyon in the '60s who isn't eventually a let-down. Exactly the opposite, because Robert Francis' songs stand tall next to anyone's, and even if so many have been predicting great things for him for so long, when it finally happens it will likely happen forever. This really could be that time, and the way he goes so deep inside is a gift meant to share. Open up.
John Fullbright, Songs. If there is one Southerner who is showing signs of all-time greatness right now in their level of songwriting, it is John Fullbright. He grew up on a farm in Bearden, Oklahoma, but once he found a way with words and chords he devoted his life to music. Fullbright's second album affirms what the first foretold: this is someone to pay attention to. He can capture the ache of life in one verse, and then sweep all that aside with the promise of tomorrow with the next. By the time the chorus comes around, the sky has opened up and it feels like we are in the true presence of a master. Try this: "Living comes natural to many/love comes natural to few/you take the high road to freedom/I'll take the low road to you."
With Fullbright, it's endless, and almost uncanny the way he's able to capture that high lonesome feeling when living feels like too much pain, but the alternatives offer nothing in return. He's gotten to the place that people like Townes Van Zandt and others found, and once there, there is no going back. John Fullbright's first album was nominated for a Grammy. Expect this one to win one, and throw wide the doors to the world. It's his time.
Dave Keller, Soul Changes. Where do these singers come from? They are able to sing like soul music is in its absolute heyday, and the Champales are flowing freely while Otis and Percy and Wilson and all the other stellar R&B names are ruling the airwaves. In Dave Keller's case, it's Massachusetts that turned him into a soul man, and it's a good bet he's never looked back. The beauty of what he does is that he can grab the lowdown feel of timeless soul music while never falling into the retro trap. Maybe that's because Dave Keller's voice comes from those real days and nights of walking the back roads and crying, but never giving up when things are dark and trouble lurks around every corner. Keller uses music like the pioneers before him — to get to a better place and try to hang on for dear life when they do. Sometimes it works, and sometimes he falls. He never gives up, though, and the songs and sounds keep him strong.
Half of these songs were recorded in Memphis with some of the Hi Records rhythm section (but where oh where is drummer Howard Grimes?), while the other half was done in Brooklyn with the mighty Revelations, and includes burning originals and covers by the O'Jays, Bobby Womack, the Patterson Twins and others. All result in top of the line soul music, the kind that first made America a better place in the '60s, and give hope that once again it can offer the same. Whatever happens, it's all about faith, and surely Dave Keller is leading that parade today right up the middle of downtown USA.
Lowell Levinger, Down to the Roots. The business of show can present a puzzling path, and those who were once in the spotlight find their way well below the stage. In the mid-'60s, the Youngbloods recorded the ultimate counterculture anthem, written by Dino Valenti, called "Get Together," and for a split-second it looked like the band's future was secured. Well, not quite. A lot of permutations later, lead singer Jesse Colin Young was on his own while the other Youngbloods scattered to the wind. Lead guitarist Banana (yes, that was his only name in the band) kept playing, and wonder of wonders, has returned with as knocked-out a collection as any once-famous musician ever made.
Banana, aka Lowell Levinger, has one of those moving voices that speaks of real life and unobstructed feeling. There is not an ounce of pretentiousness about him (how could there be with the nickname Banana), and he has an unerring instinct for choosing songs that take everything straight to the river. Whether it's on Dan Penn and Don Nix's "Like a Road" or Michael Hurley's "Blue Driver," Levinger hits everything right on the head. His guitar playing is still superb, and with guests like Ry Cooder and David Grisman on board, the fret quotient is through the roof. Best of all, every song swings, including the slow ones, so the album feels like something recorded around a campfire from heaven with nothing but best friends gathered in a circle. Banana-fana-mo!
John Mayall, A Special Life. Just like Paul Butterfield did for urban blues in the United States, in the mid-'60s in England John Mayall brought that boisterous and mind-bending music to the front of a young white audience. His band the Bluesbreakers included in quick succession guitarists Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor, and it appeared world dominance was imminent. Though it didn't happen for either Butterfield or Mayall, they made a mark that lives right to this day. But unlike Butterfield, who died in 1987, John Mayall lives on, playing the blues he loves so much with a determined passion.
He's kept the very same smarts and verve that first impassioned him, and still has a special knack for finding the right new players to start a fire and also throw in a surprise or two. Here it's the inclusion of singer and accordion player C.J. Chenier on two songs. No matter who's in the band, Mayall has a blues spirit as strong as it was when he began 60 years ago. He's now at the same age as heroes like Muddy Waters and others lived to be, and it's only natural he pushes on with the same devotion. Guitarist Rocky Athas is another strong find straight out of Texas, and songs from the pen of Albert King, Jimmy Rogers, Sonny Landreth and Jimmy McCracklin line up fine with Mayall originals, demonstrating how the blues is really a long line of reverence and innovation. John Mayall continues the charge right up the mountain.
Ernest Ranglin & Avila, Bless Up. There is a world of extraordinary musicians playing in Jamaica, but the one who seems to define what that island sound is all about is guitarist Ernest Ranglin. He's played on more sessions than just about anyone there, and always lights a fire and shows why he lives in his own realm. He can move from reggae to soul to jazz and back and never break a sweat. These new sessions with the band Avila lean toward jazz, but it's Ranglin's guitar that makes things move.
Luckily, all the Avila members rise up to Ranglin's level so there is no difference between the leader and the band. It's like they tuned into the same vibration to catch a wave, and rode it right into shore. Trombone, saxophone, trumpet, keyboards and bass chase the sound of freedom, because the sonics are otherworldly, goodness and harmony are the ruling force. Let it be known that Ernest Ranglin is in the house, and his music remains a healing force.
Harry Dean Stanton, Partly Fiction. "Well this is all rough, but that's all right isn't it? I don't want to have to do a performance. This is a living room rehearsal." Actor Harry Dean Stanton lets listeners in on the secret of this album at the very start. He has had a well-documented love of music his whole life, and if his starring roles in films like Paris, Texas took him to Hollywood heights, he sure sounds like singing is his real mistress. A new documentary explores the life of one of America's treasures, and this soundtrack is like a therapy lesson in reality.
Stripped of all pretense, Stanton wanders through a songbook that includes Roy Orbison, Fred Neil, Kris Kristofferson, Chuck Berry and others, displaying such honesty that it feels like he's right in the room. The album could easily have been subtitled "The Living Room Sessions," because that's where it's recorded. Harry Dean Stanton's voice is so pure and emotional it's like he's invaded our most personal space, and has no intention of leaving. His voice and vulnerable style go directly to the heart, and set up shop there. There won't be another release remotely like this one anytime soon, and if they gave an Academy Award for albums, Stanton's would be a shoo-in. Without a doubt, his acceptance speech would be one for the ages. More!
Candi Staton, Life Happens. When the stars align just right, and all the musicians are deep in the pocket and the song itself feels like a blessing from another planet, something from the beyond can happen. That's exactly what Candi Staton achieves on "I Ain't Easy to Love." For someone who first found fame at FAME studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama 45 years ago, Staton still has it all. Her voice can bend the earth, and her soul has no bounds. Joined by guest vocalists Jason Isbell and John Paul White on the track, time nearly stops. Producer Rick Hall—yes, the same Rick Hall from all the Muscle Shoals hits from years past—brings it home and delivers the groceries. There isn't going to be a better song recorded this year, that's for sure. Fortunately, what follows has enough real kicks that it feels like Candi Staton is making a comeback long overdue.
After her reign at the top of the R&B charts four decades ago, Staton took the gospel road and has had a fine career there. That's not the same, however, as laying it on the line on songs like "Close to You," "Beware, She's After Your Man" and "Treat Me Like a Secret." God may be her guiding light, but getting down in the street is most definitely where the action is. Not everything on the album works that well when the sweetness gets spread on a little thick, but overall Candi Staton seems poised to find her way back to the limelight. Southern soul music never had a better friend.
Johnny Winter, True to the Blues. Being a young albino teenager in Beaumont, Texas who became obsessed with the blues was not an easy road. Johnny Winter never had a choice, because once the music took over it became the only way forward. He may have flirted with other forms, but soon enough knew it was the blues or else. When he recorded his first full-length album The Progressive Blues Experiment in Austin in 1968, he also just happened to be included in a feature story in Rolling Stone about Texas musicians. A New York manager/nightclub owner saw the story and made a beeline to sign Winter.
"Instant stardom" took him to the Fillmores, Woodstock and beyond and helped Johnny Winter become a near-household name. This four-disc career collection is the perfect illustration of how a bluesman can grow and embrace a variety of styles without ever losing the thread. Johnny Winter always returns to his primary inspiration, and brings a ton of experience and expression with him. Winter also gives as good as he gets, producing people like Muddy Waters and introducing others to the shared spotlight. Listening to his voice and guitar there is no way to miss a blazing original, and know he's pursuing a higher calling. The blues will never die, as they say, and here's a prime reason why.