Macy Gray, Talking Book. It might not be a totally original idea, but in this case it's a brilliant one to be sure — have an artist take an album near and dear to their heart and record it in their own way, using the original work as a jumping off point into the ozone. That's what Macy Gray has done with Stevie Wonder's Talking Book album. And while it's impossible to improve on perfection, Gray is able to tap into a deeply moving new slant on songs like "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," "Big Brother" and "Blame It on the Sun." One saving grace is that her high-pitched voice is a world away from Wonder's, letting this music be recast with a modern glow. Also, the woman doesn't try and recreate anything instrumentally. Instead, Macy Gray moves to the outer reaches of soul music, a place where she has resided since her illustrious start, and makes these songs as brand new as classics can ever become. Now that she has shone the way to the idea of re-examining past glory, how about these newly minted versions of seminal sets: Gary Clark Jr. and Shuggie Otis's Information Inspiration; My Morning Jacket and Moby Grape '69; The Black Keys and the Rolling Stones' Beggar's Banquet; or Father John Misty and Velvet Underground's Loaded? The possibilities are endless, and not as far-fetched as they first might sound. Music that was once great is always great, and in the right hands should have every chance to shine again. Listening to Ms. Gray sing "I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)" can make true believers of us all.
Terry Allen, Bottom of the World. Enigmas are made to be broken, and after over a decade Terry Allen zeroes back into music after a life in sculpture, theatre, painting and whatever else catches his fancy, letting us know just what a strong artist he has always been. That he ran with the Lubbock Gang, which included Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, shows his stripes but also lets it be known he was and always will be his own man. Allen has a voice that can peel paint off a wall when he wants to, but is also able to finesse a room full of go-go dancers and inveterate gamblers with equal ease. His songs are also near-impossible to pin down, whether he's recycling some of his best or coming up with brand new Terry Allen standards. He's always had a way with word play, but is much too smart to be led down that dead end. Instead Allen's fertile mind looks at the modern world and turns it upside down, not so much so it makes sense but rather that he's able to find a way forward. Luckily, co-producers Lloyd Maines and Bukka Allen keep the music true to the wild winds of West Texas and the inner spirit of seekers everywhere. So when it seems like this modern life has just about hit the wall and it's too late to turn back, spin "Hold On to the House," "Do They Dream of Hell in Heaven" or "Covenant," and know there is someone out in the dark, maybe even sitting at the bottom of the world, who is trying to find clues to get to the other side. It might be a dirty, stinking job, but at least in Terry Allen's able hands there is still a fighting chance to get there.
Townes Van Zandt, Sunshine Boy. The subtitle to this soul-stirring album, "The Unheard Studio Sessions & Demos 1971-1972," says it all. After Townes Van Zandt, one of the greatest songwriters of the past 50 years, had made a series of truly stunning releases but still remained an off-road cult hero, he went into Cowboy Jack Clement's Nashville studio and two other places and once again took a run at showing the world what they were missing. That the results are so stripped-down and impossible to ignore only highlights what his devoted fans already knew: greatness lived inside Van Zandt, whether it was in songs like "Pancho & Lefty," "To Live is To Fly" and "Sad Cinderella," or on the small stages of folk clubs around America where he wandered and allowed listeners to live inside his aching soul. There was really no one else in his league, and at the start of the '70s the demanding lifestyle had not quite raised the red warning flags that would soon engulf the man and follow him to his end on New Year's Day, 1997 at 52 years old, leaving most of those closest to him amazed that he lasted so long. Of course he has become a legend, but even more importantly his songs continue to burn with an intensity that has rarely been equaled by others, capturing the amazing absurdity of life at the same time they conveyed the awesome beauty of everything that went with it. Not every one of his songs hit that mark, but those that did rose way above anyone else's. Townes Van Zandt will surely live forever in his music, and this intimate glimpse into two years when it still seemed like anything could happen for him is like a treasured surprise from beyond. He named one album The Late Great Townes Van Zandt when he was 29 years old, and the fact he lived another 23 years probably surprised no one more than it did him. Here's a peek into his past that is full of thrills and chills we probably won't see the likes of again. Stand and listen.