Beck, Morning Phase. For someone who hasn't released a new album in six years, Beck Hansen has been through a lot. Between a bad back injury that left him unable to walk, being bitten by a black widow spider, and always having to deal with the wild swirl of ideas and activity that make just being Beck a whirlwind, this son of Los Angeles sounds like he's almost back from the edge. Not like the singer is exactly starting over, though, but more like he's picking up where he left off in 2008.
There is a plaintive heart at the center of many of Beck's new songs, the kind that beats when the idea of crossing into middle age comes up for a perpetually youthful person. It's not easy looking at the back nine when you start as a musical boy wonder and encounter success beyond the wildest dreams. But Beck has never backed down from a challenge, and doesn't start now. These songs have an endless appeal at their center, and enough mystery to keep a private eye busy for a very long time. So while it's not really a brand new day for Beck, it most definitely is another morning full of wonder and promise and everything else that fills his music with intrigue. Who knows, maybe the songwriter will someday write the "Loser" answer song called "Winner."
Reagan Boggs, Quicksand. There are more detours to a musical career than there are freeways in Los Angeles. For a country woman like Reagan Boggs, what started out as a promising career got put on hold for family affairs. She was born in a "holler" in southwest Virginia, which stamps her character all the way through. There is a forlorn tear in all her vocals that speaks to hard-luck living right next to the ability to bounce back from any adversity.
It's also where the deep-seated love of country music comes from. It's used as a salve to heal the scars, and for those who take to it, becomes a beacon of light to point the way out of hardship. There is no doubt that Reagan Boggs discovered that lifeboat and knew it was her salvation, a path to dreams she'd forgotten she even had. The dozen original songs here are all about looking up and never turning back. The one cover, Eddie Vedder's "Better Man," fits in so seamlessly it's like Boggs wrote it. This is inspirational music from a singer-songwriter who fought her way out of quicksand. Believe.
Annika Chambers, Making My Mark. Need some burning rhythm and blues from a woman who knows her way around a song? How about some down-low soul from a former sergeant in the U.S. Army? Houstonian Annika Chambers can deliver all that and more, and her debut album is one of those left-field surprises that light up the night. She has a big voice, but never resorts to volume to sell the song. Rather, she keeps it right on the line from going into the red, keeping the tension turned up and the sultriness set at full steam.
Producers Larry Fulcher and Richard Cagle rounded up some of Space City's finest players, used a wise eye in choosing songs and let everything loose in the studio. Houston has a proud history of R&B, including being home to the still-unbeaten Duke/Back Beat Records roster that included Bobby "Blue" Bland, Junior Parker and O.V. Wright. So Chambers has a sturdy tradition to uphold, and uphold she does. Don't wait for any trick bag musical machinations or overly modern technical tricks. This woman gets down from the beat number one and stays there until the last song, a steamy cover of B.B. King's "Let's Get Down to Business." Truth in advertising all the way from the sound board to the bedroom.
Jimmer, The Would-Be Plans. Remember the Rave-Ups? Probably not, right? They were an '80s band that looked like they were on the lift-off pad for major things ahead. After a few close calls with success, the Rave-Ups went away, like most great bands do, and leader Jimmer Podrasky became a full-time father. Still, once music takes over your life there is usually no way to ignore it forever. No doubt Podrasky had some dark nights of the soul trying to find his way back to the sounds he loved so much, and the happy ending here is that he's now recorded the best album of his life. Seriously. There won't be much that beats it this year for offering a sound and unrelenting take on reality.
Jimmer has seen the other side, and definitely doesn't want to go back. There is a haunting strength in every song, whether it's the stunning title track, "Satellite," "Molotov Moon" or "Fall." For someone who was engaged to Shannen Doherty, married Molly Ringwald's sister but ended up living close to the streets and actually got trapped for a weekend in L.A. County's mental health system, this music is nothing short of a miracle. The next time American Idol and The Voice feel like they're dominating the music business, find this album and know you are in the hands of a real survivor who sounds like he's just getting started—again.
Marah, Mountain Minstrelsy. Sometimes those Marahians get a slightly goofy idea and take it to the limit. Thank goodness for that, too. They recently moved from Brooklyn to the countryside in Pennsylvania, and got all up in an old church in the central part of the state. When they discovered a book called Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania that included a collection of songs, the group knew their next album had come calling. What they've done with these songs and others is like a fractured ride into the past, but at the same allows the future to take a front seat.
Band members David Bielanko and Christine Smith sound like they're having the time of their life, too. They use time-honored recording tools to let the whole thing turn into a semi-turbulent affair, one that goes full-tilt for feel. They even left the recording doors of the church open so neighbors and friends could throw in on the songs. Needless to say, not many albums get made this way today, which is a shame because Marah proves that there is no substitute for freedom.
St. Paul & the Broken Bones, Half the City. Horn bands aren't that easy to find any more. Maybe it's because it costs too much to keep the extra players in a band, or maybe people think keyboards can fake the horns. Wrong, but either way audiences lose when there's not actual human beings on stage blowing air through instruments. St. Paul & the Broken Bones might hail from around Knoxville, but their souls are in Memphis and Muscle Shoals. Vocalist Paul Janeway is a tortured soul from the get-go, and does artists like Arthur Alexander and Otis Redding proud. His fellow players run interference and backup support simultaneously, obscuring just how young they are.
Any group from the South that wears dark suits and skinny ties knows their roots, and the way all can lay into a groove and make it greasy right away shows they've spent their years learning from the masters. There is something about St. Paul and the Broken Bones that goes way beyond music. It's like they have been sent to resurrect a sound that has been threatening to disappear for 40 years. With help like this, soul music is here to stay. Hooray.
Tamara Saviano, The Most Beautiful Girl. It's probably not easy writing a memoir with so much family pain at its core, but longtime music industry veteran Tamara Saviano has turned her tale into a heart-rending journey through a well-lived life. Growing up in Wisconsin, she and her father were locked in one of those no-win struggles that turns some people into monsters. Her love for him is obvious, but also so is their world of hurt. When Saviano finally makes the break to Nashville to work in radio, journalism and finally as Kris Kristofferson's publicist and producer of Grammy Award-winning albums, she's able to find the footing for a new life.
The way she writes about her childhood is like peeking into a window of a world that no longer exists. In the middle of all this mayhem is where music comes in, and offers a lifeline for the woman to move onward. No one gets out of childhood without a box of woe to try and understand, and maybe that's really what adulthood is all about. Luckily, Tamara Saviano took the high road and allowed goodness to be her guiding light. Even though she lost touch with her father the last ten years of his life, there is still a well of hope inside her, something that will likely live there forever. Read how she found it here.
Benmont Tench, You Should Be So Lucky. The inspired keyboard Zelig of rock and roll finally steps out of the shadow and into the spotlight on a solo album that is a knocked-out kick. Benmont Tench might best be known as a main man in Tom Petty's Heartbreakers, but he's also played with almost everyone worth listening to the past 40 years. On his own songs, lo and behold, he ranks right up there with all of them. Tench and producer Glyn Johns (yes, that Glyn Johns) know that great rock and roll is often about what's left out, and there is plenty of air to breathe on these tracks.
With only a small and steady band, Tench hits the sweet spot on every song. And who knew Tench had such wonderful originals living inside him? Songs like the '60s punchout "Veronica Said," the gorgeous instrumental "Ecor Rouge" and the irrepressible Laurel Canyon groove of "Like the Sun (Michoacán)" sound like someone who's been ready to make their very own album for many years. And then there's the rootsy rush of "Corrina, Corrina," which re-ups the artist's strong Southern soul. During a time when surprises like this aren't that common, leave it to one of the best friends the music has ever had to step out front like a Damon Runyon character come to thrilling life. Don't miss it.
Uncle Tupelo, No Depression. For the next hundred years, listeners will be pointing to Uncle Tupelo as ground zero for a whole new movement in American music. Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy both quickly established their own personas when Uncle Tupelo broke up, but their original recordings in this band have been scrutinized and swung to for 25 years now. This newest collection of the groundbreaking No Depression album might be the best set yet. It includes the original release, along with all kinds of demos, live recordings and other odds and ends.
The 1989 sessions are an eye-opener, and show Uncle Tupelo were straight-on and ready for prime time. Songs like "Outdone," "Life Worth Living" and "Graveyard Shift" are so packed with verve it's almost hard to hold on. Uncle Tupelo were on a mission from, if not God, at least the holy inner twang that drives musicians to never stop. Being able to hear so much of their music in one place is like discovering another treasure. Special kudos to original drummer Mike Heidorn for the unshakeable beat, and liner notes writer Richard Byrne for telling the story with such interest. The line starts here.
Various Artists, Festival Express. At the start of the 1970s, it still felt like anything was possible. At least for awhile. And to prove that shining point some of the counterculture's fieriest bands all boarded a train in Toronto to perform across Canada. How's this for a lineup: The Band, Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy, Flying Burrito Brothers, Delaney & Bonnie and Friends and Ian & Sylvia with the Great Speckled Bird. It's amazing the Rolling Stones didn't jump on just for kicks, but most likely they were still licking their wounds after the Altamont disaster. Needless to say, a great time was had by all on this journey, and while the concert footage has several high points (literally), it's the boogie going down on the train cars that really touches the soul.
This new two-disc DVD and Blu-ray version of the film is a stunner, with bonus material from the original film release along with new interviews with the artists. To see and hear the Dead's "Friend of the Devil," The Band's "The Weight" and Joplin's "Cry Baby" is to peek in on history being made. The bonus track "Child's Song" by Tom Rush is a heart-stirring reflection on leaving home, and in so many ways this movie now feels like a fond farewell to our musical youth.